I found myself back at the market, the one off Via Toledo with a trail of secondhand objects for sale – we had bought coloured glasses the last time. I recognised the street and drifted into the market square, its stalls spilling red tomatoes, so many green beans in sacks, serried courgettes in yellow and white. I bought some buffalo mozzarella, a paunchy ball which looked like an organ, and they scooped it out so tenderly into a bag, with spoons of milk as if to keep it alive. A fish from the fairground. It sat heavily in my backpack, pressing my shoulders with anticipation. You know what a glutton I am, drinking even the salty milk, all of it.
And then down Via Toledo, to the seafront where the horny strut: boys with gelled hair and T-shirts hugging blubber and muscle without preference, and bejeweled girls in leggings and strappy tops, lips glossed and spots creamed over. The city empties itself onto the parade: teenagers, dog walkers and pram-pushers, families taking a stroll together, and benches occupied by kissing couples. I ate my buffalo on the pier, shamelessly watching the fantastic snogging, thinking about how torn mozzarella feels like a tongue. I spilt white milk all over my dress, flecks that won’t rub away but clot with the fabric. It was embarrassing but there was nothing to be done. Everybody wants to talk to me, I’m asked to take a photo of them, to share a cigarette. I profess my love for Naples, me piaci Vesuvius! It makes everyone laugh, and it’s true – the view is fabulous, the great mountain is framed on the opposite side of the bay, its two peaks capped in snow. And the gap between them, which is an absence of mountain blown off centuries ago that leaves a wound that still weeps. Vesuvius is a sleeping lion that belches and burps and licks its lips.
One morning I climbed north, winding through districts that we’ve always been a little afraid of – Sanità and Materdei, where there are no longer any tourists, where the lanes are narrow and the houses spill furiously onto them – cement balconies gripping to the once-grandiose facades, or portions of street swallowed by a porch that claims a plot for washing to dry upon. All these add-ons, they’re outlawed but also pervasive, everybody’s got one. F calls it ‘wild cement’, her phrase is perfect because these extensions grow from every edifice, unpredictably and irrepressibly like bindweed. So I wandered those narrow lanes which make up so much of the city, and then it started to rain – the heaviest raindrops, huge globules spat down and I slipped on wet cobbles, deliberating whether I should even attempt to keep dry, only to see a café. I stepped inside and the atmosphere was raucous – the rain had brought everyone together for fried arancini, those delicious balls of macaroni and rice that look like scotch eggs, but are hot and sweet. The rain didn’t stop, and when I left the waiter gave me an umbrella. I couldn’t believe it – the gesture, his generosity. Without an agenda, he gave me an umbrella and pointed me down the hill.
Another day of rain leaves me sheltering in a doorway, umbrella forgotten. Other soaking pedestrians gather and we exchange despairing glances. The rain beats noisily upon a decrepit city that’s been upholstered with strips of wood, jangling aluminium and corrugated plastic. But despite the din, conversation began to prickle between us and soon one man is gesturing, he has a vehicle and will taxi us home for a few euros each. Disappearing into the rain, he returns in a van that’s been converted into a bus, and we all clamber under its thin tin roof, crouching on benches and feeling slightly caged. Nervously, I’m asking the other passengers about the driver, and the answers come softly. It’s unofficial they say, and when I press for more, I get an answer that hangs in my mind, broodingly. He drives twenty people to the same place every day. Where, nobody wants to name. Perhaps they don’t know, and it’s evident they don’t want to. Later, I ask F what it meant, thisrepeated journey, the passengers’ whispers. She knows immediately: a van to ferry workers to an illegal factory. It’s the Camorra, she says simply.
It’s impossible to avoid the political in Naples – we’ve known that – but I still feel shocked to see it played in such ordinary terms. Crime snakes its way through this city, revealed in flashes, as the great beast that dominates the politics of everything slithers underground, moving beneath us at all times. And you can glimpse it only occasionally as a flare of passing skin streaks past, as fast as a cyclist – moments when you see something, exposed, suddenly. The protagonists of this story are reptilian and I’m afraid to even write the word ‘mafia’ because it’s already mythic, it already seems like I’m falling for the conspiracy, a tourist excited by the tales of hidden societies.
Naples is where the Camorra resides; a new type of mafia, no longer hierarchal in structure like the traditional Honoured Societies, but instead arranged horizontally, flexible and fractal. It spreads out like a net, made up of divisions that aren’t always related, and even explode into violence with one another. Mafias control territory through blackmail and extortion, by selling drugs, hiding weapons and intimidating citizens. F told me, forget your assumptions about gangsters blowing up bridges, of horses heads and hit men; leave all that behind, and instead, think of the Camorra as a business, as a manifestation of the free market – an ultimate, destructive logic.
Why here? Because the bay of Naples is an orifice, a great mouth that swallows 150,000 shipping containers a year, whole cities of merchandise that are unloaded onto the quay and dispersed into the country. Products, fabric, plastic toys and everything made in China enter Europe here; goods that become part of two twin markets, legal and illegal, and both run by the Camorra. The black market just means total liberalism, the principle of profit over humanity let loose, and in some ways, it’s just more honest. It doesn’t pretend to be clean by legitimising exploitation with layers of legality. It reminds me of how dirty we all are. F tells me unregistered goods are unloaded from the ships by night and scuttled into warehouses and sweatshops on the periphery of Naples. Everyone knows about it and everyone profits, from the port staff to the fashion houses. The black market is a battered body from which the legal market sucks blood, revealing in that relationship the code of capitalism laid bare – the principle of profit above all. Deregulated, savage and competitive, the black market props up the ivory white one, by allowing commodities toflow and circulate without restriction, in a constant lubrication of the economic machine. Like adding rinse aid to the dishwasher, it keeps the grit moving.
The Camorra might be invisible to us outsiders, but for Neapolitans who have to pay extortion every month to local bosses, the clans are part of the fabric of the city. The same politicians are voted in allowing the Camorra to win public contracts for roads that are never really started, to manage utilities that fall into decline. Everybody is paid off, and so the Camorra operates everywhere with impunity. But in 2005 they became ‘visible’ when violence broke out between different factions, and for several months there was outright war in the streets – shootings and foul murders every day. As the civilian body count mounted, the Camorra’s presence could no longer be ignored, and for the first time since the end of the Second World War, the outskirts of Naples were given attention. The area was Secondigliano, a slum and Camorra heartland in the north of the city, laced with illegal workshops for couture textiles and narcotics. The reporters who flocked to the ghetto thought they had found a place of total misery, the hidden wound of the First World. But they didn’t realise that in fact they were looking at the pillars of the economy, the hidden mine. This was where the market got its energy.
Of late, I’ve been waking early and returning to Sanità, which is so alive – doors are ajar, the stairwells bustle with bodies and living rooms spill into the street. Naples is built from volcanic rock so the city is porous, and there are so many hidden squares and churches, things folded into the city like seeds in dough. You can’t rely on street names or follow house numbers, but instead you reference churches, shops, murals. Do you remember we found a cathedral, San Gregorio Armeno, climbing the steps off Via Tribunali to that inconspicuous door from which organ music wafted? Our surprise, entering a vast space with baroque ceilings and luminous glass in flushes of peach, dark golds, smoke and perfume. It was like entering an underground chamber rather than a loaf of the city itself. The air was different – older, the sweat of oil and marble.
The Camorra barely function in the centre of Naples anymore, because the stakes now reach beyond the extortion of small shopkeepers or feeding local addicts. As the international, globalised market has exploded, so too have the Camorra expanded their activities, moving to the outskirts where things can enter and exit with the ease of osmosis, a periphery littered with sweatshops and bootleg DVD makers and arms dens. The more you look, the more the landscape appears to be lacerated, its body scored by shattered glass, the kind you have to pick out with tweezers. I’m referring to the dumps, thousands of illegal refuse heaps that surround the city. Every foot of land has its own type of trash – because the Camorra became Europe’s leading waste disposal agents in the late 90s. Imagine this: looking at the landscape not as a place to plant, build, develop, but instead a cupboard to hide things in. To look for empty space that you can insert toxic things into. There is unregulated and unreported waste scattered over the south of Italy, a great environmental crime that is also a kind of self- harm. In some cases, the wounds are open – children are paid to light fires on the dumps, using film from scrapped videotapes to create blazing pathways, like fuses. Do you remember the riots in October 2010, when Neapolitans took to the streets? I hadn’t realised that it was a campaign against the Camorra’s illegal dumping – farmers complaining of the car tyres, industrial glue and asbestos strewn across their land. And that is just the visible waste, they insisted, the rest has been burnt or buried, and you can infer it from the deformed crops. Toxic waste that’s hidden in the ground is glazed over with fertile soil from the looming volcano, and from it the most marvellous produce will spout, as if the intoxicated soil is delirious, like a glitching slot machine spilling its coins: spotted tomatoes which bulge like marrows, broccoli laden with heavy metals. The smell of the market place on Via Toledo that we came to love, a mix of salty fish guts and that smell of greenness that comes off tomato skin – how sinister to know of the poisons permeating the place.
And isn’t the greatest hiding place of all the volcano itself? A huge hole right at the centre of it all, a throat that swallows and spews in turn. When the volcano next belches, its lava tongue will be whisked with molten waste, glowing with toxins. I climbed it years ago – the first time I came here I couldn’t stop watching it from train windows, casting my eye along its ridge, which became familiar like the profile of a face. The pumice pathway up is lined with flimsy fencing, and the light rocks masticate against each other. The path curves gently around the mountain so that you circle it like water sucked into a drain. The crater’s edge is serrated, and the air stinks of sulphur sweated out by the mountain, sweet as custard apple. And at the top, I look down into a cavity that spirals inward and which always promises to vent, suddenly and viciously. Vesuvius says it will never be calm here.
All images © Salvatore Santoro