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The Piranhas, by Roberto Saviano 

04 January 2019

A cautionary tale lacks hope, says Fiona Hook

GOMORRAH, Roberto Saviano’s book about the Camorra, the Mafia of Naples, led to a TV series and permanent police protection. Now he has put this knowledge to use in a grim and disturbing piece of fiction.

Nicolas is 16, handsome, charismatic, and without scruples. He is obsessed with belonging to the glamorous New Maharaja club, but more with power. Soon he is dealing drugs for the Camorra, and his gang of friends become his criminal band. These are middle-class boys who phone their parents if they’re going to be late. Nicolas is still in school, writing intelligently about his hero, Machiavelli. His teacher father talks about sending him abroad for a Master’s.

It is hard to believe that any teenager, however charismatic, could wield this kind of influence. The book becomes a Rake’s Progress, in which the characters have no distinct personality, and the road to hell is paved with an escalating series of downward steps, from theft to guns and finally murder.

The band see no future, and every cent they make goes on designer clothes. The one spark of possible redemption, as a boy goes into a church and asks to be saved from the murder that he is about to commit, soon flickers out.

Saviano has said in interview that he intends to warn parents to pay more attention to the world that their offspring inhabit. The gang operate on WhatsApp and post their triumph on YouTube, alien planets to most parents. Even so, it is difficult to accept that people could be quite this blind to what’s going on under their noses. It is surely another plot device.

The translator Antony Shugaar’s habit of leaving some of the original Neapolitan dialect before translating it is annoying, as it holds up the narrative and is wasted on anyone who doesn’t read Italian.

The bleak morality tale has no moral, as the anti-hero is still flourishing at the end. Overall, it is not a cheering book. Not everything worth reading is.

Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.

The Piranhas
Roberto Saviano
Picador £14.99

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