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Suburra by Marco Bonini and Giancarlo de Cataldo

Author: Paul Burke
Newspaper: Nudge-Book
Date: Aug 26 2017

Suburra will stay with me for some time, this is more than just a crime novel it is an important exposé of Italy’s criminal underbelly. The corruption of every facet of society is portrayed by the novel and the scale is staggering and horrifying. Suburra tells the epic story of modern Rome and the people who manipulate it’s destiny. There is a long set up but the tension rises and grips as the plot unfolds. Anyone who has read Romanzo Criminale will recognise the style instantly but Suburra is much better written and all round much more entertaining, perhaps that in part is Bonini’s contribution? For anyone interested in modern Italy and the symbiosis of state and mafia this is an intriguing and richly detailed novel. It has the power to convey, as all great fiction does, truth – shedding some light on a very dirty reality.

The mafia in Italy have a turn over of €140billion a year (7% of the nation’s GDP). The four largest are reckoned to have cash reserves of €65billion. The mafia has a piece of the State, Church, business and security services. This is the background to Bonini and de Cataldo’s novel. A fiction that explores what Tobias Jones referred to as the ‘dark heart of Italy’.

So Suburra is based on astonishing but true events in the eternal city. When the Italian edition of Suburra was published in 2013 La Republicca said that it superimposes real events. Suburra, an ancient brothel district of the city, is in thrall to the gangster culture that blights the life of ordinary people and lines the pockets of those in power over them. The novel has a bold and ambitious style, unemotional and free from unnecessary descriptive detail underlining the credibility and power of the material. A semi-documentary tone allows the tragedy of the story to emerge unburdened. It is a style more often seen in contemporary fiction. There are no tropes or cliché this is literary crime fiction of real depth. Bonini is a journalist, de Cataldo a judge, their considerable personal experience and knowledge throws light on the inherently corrupt nature of the Italian state and the city of Rome. Suburra is a searing indictment of a city awash with bad governance and criminal control. The novel is an exposé of the pernicious influence of the mafia on politics, business, and culture.

Suburra opens by referencing the era of Romanzo Criminale, some of the characters in Suburra learned their trade during the worst years of the Banda Della Magliana, the mafia that has blighted Rome in the decades since its inception in 1975 (involved in the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, the bombing of Bologna train station, the Banco Ambrosiano scandal and Roberto Calvi’s death). The characters in Suburra are the descendants of that dead generation: Libano, Fredo, Dandi and Inspector Scialoja. The earlier story does not feature in Suburra but overhangs this novel, continuity is established but this is not a direct sequel. Suburra is modern Rome, the new millennium, Burlesconi is Prime Minister, the people have changed but this is the same old world.

This is not the kind of crime novel that will appeal to the action thriller reader, there are no pyrotechnics here. It is a subtle telling of a complex tale, more to be savoured than devoured. The characters are complex and relationships involved. For example, Carabinieri Lieutenant Colonel Marco Malatesta is conflicted by the desire to do the right thing, his feelings for left wing activist, Alice, and the fundamental belief in his colleagues and the law. His dilemma is true to life and nuanced. Murder is presented as pitiful, stupid and tawdry; murderers are cowardly, ugly and motivated by venality and ego. Much of the plot and character development is dialogue driven and even the most unlikable rogues are rounded individuals. A small criticism among glowing reviews in Italy refer to the filmic nature of some of the scenes and at times Suburra does read like a screenplay. However, this is not really a draw back and at times it seems the most natural way to tell the story.

At the heart of the novel are Samurai, Adami and Anacleti, the gangsters, Malatesta, the policeman, Malgradi, the politician and Tempesta, the Bishop. The sweeping plot involves an audacious land grab and a huge development project. The growth of the city is subjugated to mafia money laundering as they seek to legitimise their interests with the help of corrupt officials and politicians. Rome is a city of internecine factional squabbling between regional mafia clans and orchestrated fascist violence against left wing groups. The New City Group plan to develop the Ostia coast into a casino complex to rival Las Vegas, ‘the great project’. Ambitions extend beyond their sordid origins into the heart of the economy. Yet the gangsters find it hard to leave their old mores behind and the pull of the criminal life is in constant conflict with attempts to legitimise their interests and clean their money. This weakness is the hope for truth and for the good guys, for justice to sometimes win out in a world of conspiracy and depravity.

Some reviews have referred to a similarity with The Godfather, an early exposé of mafia life. However, Puzo wrote a blockbuster and tended to glorify the life and wallow a little in the glamour. There is no glamour here, only the terrible tragedy of blighted lives, wasted existences, suffering, endurance and small victories for the righteous. Fans of Poisonville by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Videtta (Europa Editions, 2009) will enjoy this novel.

I first came across de Cataldo when the film Romanzo Criminale came out in 2005 (later an excellent RAI television series). I have high hopes for the up coming Netflix series of Suburra – there is a wealth of material here to work from. Curiously the translation of Romanzo Criminale did not follow in English until 2015 (Corvus) – it nailed 70s/80s Rome, Suburra does the same for Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy. De Cataldo’s previous novel The Father and the Foreigner was also published by Europa Editions in 2009. A compassionate and beautifully written short novel, very personal and a scathing look at the Italian justice system – very different in style from this novel.

If you like your crime fiction to be true to life, intelligent and serious in intent this is a great read. One not forgotten easily.