Italian Mafia literature has been enjoying a bit of a boom over the last 6 years or so. These days there’s even a festival (http://www.tramefestival.it/) devoted to books about the Mafia. Ten, which was originally published in 2007, was one of the trailblazers. Inspired by the Ten Commandments, these short stories by Italian author Andrej Longo explore the dark side of Naples. The opening one sets the scene: 17 year old Papilù tries to stay out of trouble and keep away from the Mafia because “once you’re inside the system you’re fucked and your life’s not your own any more”. It all goes wrong when he’s out with his girlfriend one night and gets into trouble. The local mafia boss just happens to be on hand to help him out…
The next story follows the downfall of a promising singer with a little too much ambition for his own good. In return for exposure from a well-connected patron, he starts off delivering drugs and ends up testing them ‘I’d become what they call a visitor, the man they give a daily hit to see if he lives or dies afterwards. If he lives they know it’s well cut and they can sell it, if he dies that means they’ve overdone it and they have to cut it a bit more’.
It’s tragic, but all ten of them are tragic. It’s the stuff of Ken Loach films. In fact Longo also writes for film, as well as radio and theatre. It shows in the skilled scene setting; the way he builds tension and creates atmosphere, the way he makes every word count (and thanks to impressive work by the translator Howard Curtis it has been converted into flawless colloquial English, no mean feat since the original was in a mixture of Italian and Neapolitan dialect).
Things don’t lighten up any through the rest of the collection. There’s a young teenager knocked up by her own father, a woman whose husband visits once a week because he took a job in Rome, several hours away by train, to be able to earn enough money to pay the mortgage. ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’ follows a reunion of two friends, one just back after three years serving in Afghanistan. Over a meal they chat about plans for the future. The food sounds mouth-watering, they have to pay someone to ‘look after’ their car, which is parked outside the restaurant.
Ten’s UK release seems to have gone unnoticed which is a shame, both because it’s an enlightening read if your previous ideas of Naples involved pizza and the Amalfi Coast, but also because the writing is excellent (it won several prizes in Italy).
Any Cop?: Gritty and direct – this might bore you if you’re looking for something more experimental in your reading, but otherwise its superbly executed and an undemanding read, despite the depressing subject matter.