- - Wednesday, October 31, 2018



By Roberto Saviano

Translated by Anthony Shugaar

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, 368 pages

I visited Naples, Italy, in the mid-1970s while serving in the U.S. Navy. A friend who knew Naples very well warned me about the gangs of children who swarm visitors and ask for money, a scene I saw often while previously serving in Southeast Asia.

While swarming around you, the children distract and disorient you and then they pick your pocket, lift your watch or steal your camera. My friend advised me to raise my hand and yell “Basta!,” which means enough or stop it in Italian. The command worked as the children scattered away from me. I was amused, yet I felt sorry for the children who begged and stole on the street.

Today, according to Roberto Saviano, children like those I encountered many years ago are the new Godfathers of Naples.

Robert Saviano is the author of “Gomorrah,” a fine non-fiction book about the Camorra, Naples‘ centuries-old organized crime group. The book was adapted into a film and later a TV series. The Camorra clans in Naples placed a contract on Mr. Saviano’s life and he went into hiding, surrounded at all times by Italian police officers.

Mr. Saviano now covers much of the same ground as he did in “Gomorrah” in a factually researched novel titled “The Pirahanas: The Boy Bosses of Naples.” The novel, translated into English, is about the sad, profane and violent world of the children who are involved in Naples‘ underworld of crime.

The novel’s main character is a 15-year-old named Nicolas Fiorillo, known as Marja as he often frequents a club called the New Maharaja. He is not from a poor family, as his father is a high school phys ed teacher and his mother owns a small pressing shop. Yet the fast money and false glamor of crime pulls Nicholas and his teen and pre-teen friends into organized crime, selling drugs on street corners for a Camorra boss.

After his arrest of his Camorra boss during a period of conflict and confusion between the Camorra clans, Nicholas sees an opportunity to take over the drug market in the outlying quarters of the city. He also had a bold plan to expand into the protection racket.

Leading his nine teen and pre-teen friends, he organizes a new street gang, called a paranza. Nicholas tells his friends that they must build a paranza that’s all theirs, reporting to no one. Armed with guns and riding motor scooters, the crew begins to bring in money while terrorizing the city.

“People called them children and children is what they actually were,” Mr. Saviano writes. “And just like anyone who hasn’t begun to live, they were afraid of nothing, they considered old people to be dead already, buried already, history already. The only weapon they possessed was the feral nature man-cubs still preserved. Small animals that act on instinct.”

They bare their teeth and snarl, and that’s enough to put fear into those they encounter, Mr. Saviano tells us. They needed to become ferocious.

“They’d do their dealing after school, but sometimes they didn’t even bother showing up at school, since they were getting paid a percentage of what they sold. It was the fifty or a hundred euros a week that made the difference,” writes Roberto Saviano.

“And the money went to just one place: Foot Locker. They took that storm by storm. They troop in, arrayed in compact formation, as if they were ready to knock the place off and then, once they were through the front door, they scatter. They grab ten, fifteen T-shirts at a time. Tucano would put the T-shirts on one over the other. Just Do It. Adidas. Nike. One symbol would vanish only to be placed by others in a split second. Nicolas bought three pairs of Air Jordans at the same time.”

When a youngster called Biscottino confronts a Camorra street boss called Roipnol, telling him that the paranza was now in charge, the elder gangster is unimpressed.

“Oh, oh, do you hear how this little ‘muschillo’ [the Neapolitan term for a child dope pusher] roars? Do you think I’m afraid of a child like you?”

“It took me ten years to become a child, but it’ll take me just a second to shoot you in the face.”

And with that he shoots Roipnol in the face. When Roipnol’s wife throws herself on her husband’s prone body, Biscottino calmly shoots her in the back of the head.

Gaining notoriety, a local newspaper named them “Simmer la paranza dei bambini — the children’s paranza.”

“The Piranhas” is an interesting novel that explores the corruption of youth and the underbelly of organized crime in Naples.

• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

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