La paranza dei bambini

Roberto Saviano (Feltrinelli, 2016).
2 Jun 2019

Italian book review: La paranza dei bambini, by Roberto Saviano

Paranzini si nasce. Little criminals are born, not made. Per fare i camorristi, bisogna essere già imparati (sic). There is no allowance for a learning curve in organized crime.

Or so believes Nicolas, teenage protagonist of Roberto Saviano’s 2016 book La paranza dei bambini and self-proclaimed boss of a new camorra group in Naples composed of a handful of his closest friends.

“Paranza,” the narrator explains, is a multifaceted term. On the one hand, a reference to a number of tiny fish species native to the the Mediterranean, captured in hordes to be breaded and fried. Singularly, none of these fish is either appetizing or satisfying, but together they compose a dignified dish worthy of its own renown. In Italy, la frittura di paranza is a staple to coastline menus.

But “paranza” is also used to refer to the very boats that, with their nets, pull up these tiny fish by the hundreds, casting them to their dark fate.

In Naples, “paranza” is to organized criminals what “murder” is to crows: a collective noun, a designation of belonging and purpose. And at the same time, a reference, though seldom acknowledged, not only to the constituents of this group, but to the very nets that trap them, to the mechanisms that keep the wheel turning to the clear disadvantage to all.

Where is Khaleesi, breaker of chains, when you need her?

(Too soon?)

We have seen the Naples described in Saviano’s book before. It’s not unlike the Naples in Gomorrah, besieged by competing pockets of organized crime in different parts of the city. Here, most of the activity takes place in the neighbourhood of Forcella, unmoored after the arrest of some major crime bosses and, for all intents and purposes, up for grabs by competing factions. Enter Nicolas who, at the height of his sixteen years and informed primarily by a startling familiarity with violent camorra or  romanticized mafia films and a few passages of Machiavelli snuck in for good measure, sees an opportunity to fill the void, make a name for himself, break the wheel. Convinced of his ability to reinvent a decadent system built on outdated models of blood loyalty, Nicolas gathers his closest friends and forms what he thinks will be a rival group to the major players still on the board. Though naïve and transparent — his chosen “boss” name is Maraja, or “king” — Nicolas’s strategy is well thought-out (if not original): befriend your enemy’s enemy, amass an arsenal of weapons, divide and conquer. It, and he, are driven mainly by an unceasing quest for respect among perceived equals (other camorra bosses) at all costs, and a need to be feared by the masses. Bisogna comandare. Bisogna farsi rispettare.  

Sound familiar?

Of course, readers must know that Nicolas’s story can end in only one way. Saviano does not wish to insult their intelligence. They can imagine as early as the book’s opening chapters the fate reserved for Nicolas, his family, and his paranzini. And when, chapter after chapter, their suspicions are confirmed, they aren’t, they cannot be surprised. Yet, they keep reading, as if watching a train wreck, enthralled and strangely moved by these characters’ clumsy fumbling toward adulthood in the only inelegant way they know, captivated by the slow and calculated unfolding of inevitable events.

I’m not a boy. Not yet a camorrista.

Saviano’s construction of this precarious space straddling childhood and adulthood, where teachers and role models are replaced by YouTube or Google and books replaced with smartphones, is nothing short of masterful. The paranzini are, simply, children trying to speed up the process of maturation not unaware of the dangers they face in doing so, but completely disregarding of them. They see themselves as untouchable. They are willingly manipulated at the hands of more seasoned bosses, hoping eventually to get the better of them. But their improvised code of conduct comes at a dear cost for all involved, and Saviano reveals it through an escalation of violence that has more to do with high school drama than big-leagues stakes. Far from being gratuitous, this violence, when it does not function as a marker of dominant status as visible as the kind of motorcycle the paranzini drive, has a clear pedagogical purpose for the young criminals. It is a rite of passage, they are told and readily believe, that will unlock their access to the success they seek. Like levelling up in one of the video games they still play and use for target practice. What Saviano makes clear throughout is these characters’ absolute, if conflicted, agency in all of their actions. No undertaking, however morally controversial, is casual. None has been decided without thought. That their reasoning should be limited, illogical, inconsistent is a natural consequence of their youth. So, too, is the modelling of their modus operandi on unattainable examples. Nowhere is their immaturity blamed on The System. Yet the unbreakability of this same System is clear throughout the book. There is never any question as to the characters’ final outcome. It is this paradoxical paradigm, largely uninhabited by previous writers and narratives, that Saviano expertly navigates.

A little research shows La paranza dei bambini to be a polarizing book, frequently criticized even among habitual Saviano enthusiasts. It has been called vapid, empty, obvious, and heavy-handed. “This is not literature,” one reviewer writes. Another laments how unclassifiable this book is: it isn’t a giallo (crime novel), nor is a true crime novel (the “historical fiction” of crime novels). So what is it? Saviano has come under attack again and again for his use of thin symbolism or clichéd terms (“Camorra 2.0”, used early in the book, is among the most hated). But it is important to distinguish the book’s author both from his narrator and from the characters whose story he tells. It is important to recognize these characters as teens from the lower middle class whose knowledge of high culture begins and ends with the canonical authors they are forced to read, against their will, at school. It is important to view the story from their immature and, yes, at times thin, transparent, clichéd points of view.

Once readers are willing to accept these basic premises — that the book eschews traditional classification (those eager to label it might have better luck with a term like “documentary fiction”) and that it is intentionally banal at times — its value is undeniable. Its main agenda, the dismantling of Nicolas’ myth of the self-made boss and the danger it poses to all, is meted out with precision and care. Maraja’s paranza is a greater liability to itself and those it aims to protect than to its enemies. La paranza dei bambini is a cautionary tale in its truest form, the story of a Parthenopean Icarus whose cool hubris is so rooted in a fundamental sense of self-righteousness that it becomes fatal not only to himself but to those he leads as well. Or perhaps better, it is a work that makes plain the world in which types like Nicolas and his paranza live and by which they are all conditioned as they see it themselves.

The book is not without its flaws. Saviano might have done well to employ a first-person narrator. Is the story at times as formulaic as some reviewers have claimed? Yes. Although even those “scripted” moments are a cause for pause among readers. Undeniably, some characters are unsatisfactorily (to the reader, though perhaps of little consequence to the narrative) fleshed out. Mena, Nicolas’s mother, is the most striking case in point. Some relationships, inconsequential to the overall narrative and ultimately a distraction, are entirely disposable. The inclusion of a teenage pregnancy in the book’s closing chapters feels very much like a throwaway. And Nicolas’s relationship with his girlfriend, Letizia, falls short of its full potential to nuance his story or contribute to his overall development. The ending, though emotionally impactful, gets only the timing right, and though a logical conclusion to the book’s events, seems empty (I’m looking at you, Benioff and Weiss). Yet La paranza dei bambini suffers only a little from these imperfections. The Classic Neapolitan Tragedy it portrays (over and over again) is delivered with great style and much fanfare, just as tradition expects. It had me, for one, sobbing. And I knew what was coming all along. An emphatic recommended-read.

La paranza dei bambini is followed by Bacio feroce (Feltrinelli, 2017) (sequel) and has been adapted to film (La paranza dei bambini, Claudio Giovannesi, 2019). Join us for a screening July 5th at 7:30pm at Casa d’Italia (505 rue Jean Talon est, Montreal, QC).