Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Of Unidentified Narrative Objects, Aberdeen, Generation Kill and Gomorrah...

I've just about finished Roberto Saviano's astonishing book Gomorrah (the movie is set for a foreign language Oscar) which is subtitled 'Italy's Other Mafia' and is a journalistic....immersion is probably the best the world of the Camorra, the Neapolitan 'mafia' - a 'system' (Saviano's word) at least four times bigger than its better-known Sicilian equivalent.

According to Saviano, the UK HQ of the Mondragone Camorra was and is, well, Aberdeen. He's worked in the city and claims its entire tourism and recreation sector was rejuvenated by Camorra activity. Help ma boab!

It's an amazing book, by turns jabbering, ranting, coolly factual, phenomenally detailed, objective and furiously partisan. It has, almost by itself, spawned the description 'Unidentified Narrative Object' to describe its style, though frankly it's not a spit away from Hunter S Thompson's best work (notably Hell's Angels and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail). It has the same rage and the phenomenal observational ability. But not the joyous consumption of mood altering substances.

Anyway, here's an interesting column from the Hindustan Times about the book. For me, reading Gomorrah comes hot on the heels of another journalistic tour de force, Generation Kill, Evan Wright's story of his 'embedding' for Rolling Stone in the US Marine Corps during the most recent invasion of Iraq. Wright's approach is in a recognisable style of American 'personalised' journalism, owing a great deal to the 'new journalism' of Thompson and Wolfe, but endeavouring all the time for the kind of objectivity we would recognise as 'factual reportage'.

Wright has been heavily criticised by some of the 'characters' in his book, particularly the officers, especially since the advent of the TV series based on it, made by the people behind the much-lauded (by me!) The Wire. He's been accused of disguising third-hand stories as first-hand reportage, and of accepting the (highly coloured) views of the soldiers he was embedded with as fact.

Saviano defuses such criticism by leaving the nuts and bolts of his style very visible: the book's astonishingly grisly opening, which reads like personal observation (and is very like a scene in series two of The Wire), is later revealed as a tale told to him by a crane operator. All the way through, though, the shifts from personal grief to hard-nosed grafting hackwork are made very clear. And the book's personal context (Saviano has not been sued, has been awarded numerous prizes, but is under threat of assassination) validates the truthfulness of his work.

Wright's book assumes journalistic objectivity but leaves the reader with a sense that it's only one part of the story. In effect, despite its sober, these-are-the-facts narrative voice, it's highly personalised, restricted by its adherence to the notion of 'journalism'. Saviano's overtly individualistic, occasionally demented, scattergun method, and open moral stance (easy when the book's subjects are so, so plain bad)seems to me more trustworthy. Doubt it'll be serialised in The Press and Journal, though!

Anyway, Generation Kill is on UK TV from Sunday, on FX. Gomorrah the movie I haven't seen.

Thanks to Magnus by the way for giving me Generation Kill for Christmas and Gomorrah for my birthday!


Anonymous said...

Excellent article - amazingly Gomorrah not nominated for an Oscar!

swiss said...

if you're fancying gomorrah you might want to check out romanzo criminale on dvd