There's a famous expression in Italian: vedi Napoli, puoi muorire ("having seen Naples, you can die.") Italians consider Naples the most beautiful city in the world.
It is absolutely breathtaking with its rococo architecture and narrow city streets that spread fanlike across sloping hills above the azure waters of the Gulf of Naples and under the looming shadow of Vesuvius – hence, the flattering figurative expression.
However, with Roberto Saviano's bestselling book Gomorrah about the ruthless Neapolitan crime network known as the Camorra out in bookstores, the part about dying may seem more literal.
Napule (pronounced Na-poo-lay), as the natives refer to her, is where Virgil wrote the Aeneid. And no doubt it is Virgil, the voice of Reason in Dante's Divine Comedy, after whom Roberto Saviano fashioned himself as he risked life and limb to record one of the most in-depth accounts ever written about Italy's notorious underworld crime ring and its dealings in the international markets of high fashion, weapons, drugs, construction, and toxic waste disposal.
This is a literary tour de force about The System (the name by which the Camorra refers to itself) and how those in it do their bad-guy business: "To know you are businessmen destined to end up dead or in jail and still feel the ruthless desire to dominate powerful and unlimited economic empires." Beginning at the Port of Naples, which he calls "an open wound," Saviano participates in the offloading of contraband from a Chinese vessel. He calculates that "60 percent of the goods arriving in Naples escape official customs inspection, 20 percent of the bills of entry go unchecked, and fifty thousand shipments are contraband, 99 percent of them from China."
The corruption is so absolute that renting an apartment near the port is no longer possible because every available space is crammed with contraband: "Apartments rented. Gutted. Garage walls removed to make one continuous space. Cellars packed to the ceiling with merchandise."
It's all Chinese merchandise. And true to the Neapolitan affinity for nomenclature, all the Chinese who work in Naples have Neapolitan names. "It's now such common practice that it's no longer surprising to hear a Chinese introduce himself as Tonino, Nino, Pino or Pasquale."
Indeed, nicknames are key here, and Saviano takes delight in listing infamous ones, such as Antonio Carlo D'Onofrio, known as Carlucciello "mangiavatt" (Little Charles the cat eater) or Gennaro Di Chiara "scupierto" (live wire.)
Some readers may grumble about the loose translation, and the narrative sometimes falters awkwardly between first-person and second-person. But the language of "Gomorrah" more often pleases because it feels so Italiano: chock-full of colorful metaphors and snappy epigrams.
A chapter titled "The Secondigliano War" is the book's most captivating. (Secondigliano is a suburb of Naples where Camorristi live and do business.)
Here, like a Shakespearean scholar, Saviano holds forth on the attributes and fatal flaws of his favorite mob characters, while at the same time interpreting the meaning of an internecine Camorra war: "This is the new rhythm of criminal entrepreneurs, the new thrust of the economy: to dominate it at any cost. Power before all else. Economic victory is more precious than life itself. Than anyone's life, including your own."
Perhaps most disturbing is the last chapter, "Land of Fire," in which Saviano describes the monopoly the Camorra has on the European toxic-waste disposal industry.
"The market price for legal disposal ranges from 21 to 62 cents a kilo, while the clans provide the same service at 9 or 10 cents a kilo." And how do they dispose of the toxic waste? They mix it with cement to be used in construction; they put it in caskets with corpses, or they mix it in with compost for fertilizer. Saviano suggests that the north is complicit because by lightening their toxic load the businesses of northern Italy have become more competitive in the European Union.
No doubt this book is sending shockwaves across Europe. "Gomorrah" is an eyepopping, hair-raising, stomach-turning book. The mob has never looked so bad – or read so well.
• Richard Horan is author of two novels, "Life in the Rainbow" and "Goose Music." He teaches composition at the State University of New York at Oswego.