Authors: Roberto Saviano
ALSO BY ROBERTO SAVIANO
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Copyright © 2013 by Roberto Saviano
Translation copyright © 2015 by Penguin Random House LLC
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Originally published in Italian under the title
by Feltrinelli Editore, Milan.
This book is dedicated to all my Carabinieri bodyguards to the fifty-one thousand hours we’ve spent together and to those still ahead. Wherever they may be.
I’m not afraid they’ll trample me.
Trampled grass soon becomes a path.
The guy sitting next to you on the train uses cocaine, he took it to get himself going this morning; or the driver of the bus you’re taking home, he wants to put in some overtime without feeling the cramps in his neck. The people closest to you use coke. If it’s not your mother or father, if it’s not your brother, then it’s your son. And if your son doesn’t use it, your boss does. Or your boss’s secretary, but only on Saturdays, just for fun. And if your boss doesn’t, his wife does, to let herself go. And if not his wife, then his lover—he gives her cocaine instead of earrings, in place of diamonds. And if they don’t, the truck driver delivering tons of coffee to cafés around town does; he wouldn’t be able to hack those long hours on the road without it. And if he doesn’t, the nurse who’s changing your grandfather’s catheter does. Coke makes everything seem so much easier, even the night shift. And if she doesn’t, the painter redoing your girlfriend’s room does; he was just curious at first but wound up deep in debt. The people who use cocaine are right here, right next to you. The police officer who’s about to pull you over has been snorting for
years, and everyone knows it, and they write anonymous letters to his chief hoping he’ll be suspended before he screws up big time. Or the surgeon who’s just waking up and will soon operate on your aunt. Cocaine helps him cut open six people a day. Or your divorce lawyer. Or the judge presiding over your lawsuit; he doesn’t consider it a vice, though, just a little boost, a way to get more out of life. The cashier who hands you the lottery ticket you hope is going to change your life. The carpenter who’s installing the cabinets that cost you a month’s salary. Or the workman who came to put together the IKEA closet you couldn’t figure out how to assemble on your own. If not him, then the manager of your condo building who is just about to buzz you. Or your electrician, the one who’s in your bedroom right now, moving the outlets. The singer you are listening to to unwind, the parish priest you’re going to talk to about finally getting confirmed because your grandson’s getting baptized, and he’s amazed you’ve put it off for so long. The waiters who will work the wedding you’re going to next Saturday; they wouldn’t be able to last on their feet all that time if they didn’t. If not them, then the town councillor who just approved the new pedestrian zones, and who gets his coke free in exchange for favors. The parking lot attendant who’s happy now only when he’s high. The architect who renovated your vacation home, the mailman who just delivered your new ATM card. If not them, then the woman at the call center who asks “How may I help you?” in that shrill, happy voice, the same for every caller, thanks to the white powder. If not her, your professor’s research assistant—coke makes him nervous. Or the physiotherapist who’s trying to get your knee working right. Coke makes him more sociable. The forward who just scored, spoiling the bet you were winning right up until the final minutes of the game. The prostitute you go to on your way home, when you just can’t take it anymore and need to vent. She does it
so she won’t have to see whoever is on top or under or behind her anymore. The gigolo you treated yourself to for your fiftieth birthday. You did it together. Coke makes him feel really macho. The sparring partner you train with in the ring, to lose weight. And if he doesn’t, your daughter’s riding instructor does, and so does your wife’s psychologist. Your husband’s best friend uses it, the one who’s been hitting on you for years but whom you’ve never liked. And if he doesn’t, then your school principal does. Along with the janitor. And the real estate agent, who’s late, just when you finally managed to find time to see the apartment. The security guard uses it, the one who still combs his hair over his bald spot, even though guys all shave their heads these days. And if he doesn’t, the notary you hope you never have to go back to, he does it to avoid thinking about the alimony he has to pay his ex-wives. And if he doesn’t, the taxi driver does; he curses the traffic but then goes all happy again. If not him, the engineer you have to invite over for dinner because he might help you get a leg up in your career. The policeman who’s giving you a ticket, sweating profusely even though it’s winter. The squeegee man with hollow eyes, who borrows money to buy it, or that kid stuffing flyers under windshield wipers, five at a time. The politician who promised you a commercial license, the one you and your family voted into office, and who is always nervous. The professor who failed you on your exam. Or the oncologist you’re going to see; everybody says he’s the best, so you’re hoping he can save you. He feels omnipotent when he sniffs cocaine. Or the gynecologist who nearly forgets to throw away his cigarette before going in to examine your wife, who has just gone into labor. Your brother-in-law, who’s never in a good mood, or your daughter’s boyfriend, who always is. If not them, then the fishmonger, who proudly displays a swordfish, or the gas station attendant who spills gas on your car. He sniffs to feel young again but can’t
even put the pump away correctly anymore. Or the family doctor you’ve known for years and who lets you cut the line because you always know just the right thing to give him at Christmas. The doorman of your building uses it, and if he doesn’t, then your kids’ tutor does, your nephew’s piano teacher, the costume designer for the play you’re going to see tonight, the vet who takes care of your cat. The mayor who invited you over for dinner recently. The contractor who built your house, the author whose book you’ve been reading before falling asleep, the anchorwoman on the evening news. But if, after you think about it, you’re still convinced none of these people could possibly snort cocaine, you’re either blind or you’re lying. Or the one who uses it is you.
“They were all sitting around a table, right here in New York, not far from here.”
“Where?” I asked instinctively.
He gave me a look that said he couldn’t believe I was stupid enough to ask a question like that. What I was about to hear was an exchange of favors. The police had arrested a young man in Europe a few years back. A Mexican with an American passport. He was sent to New York, where they let him stew in the swamp of the underworld instead of in jail. Every now and then he’d spill some news to keep from being arrested. Not an informer exactly, but pretty close, something that didn’t make him feel like a rat, but not one of those silent as stone types either. The police would ask him generic questions, nothing specific enough to expose him in front of his gang. They needed him to say which way the wind was blowing, what the mood was, rumors of meetings or wars. No proof or evidence, just rumors. They’d collect the evidence later on. But now that wasn’t enough. The young man had recorded a speech on his iPhone at a meeting he’d gone to. A speech that made the police uneasy. Some of them, whom I’d known for years,
wanted me to write about it somewhere, to make noise, to see what sorts of reactions it got in order to find out if the story I was about to hear really went the way the young man said it had, or if it had been staged, a little theater piece. They wanted me to shake things up in the world where those words had been uttered, where they’d been heard.
The police officer waited for me in Battery Park, on a little jetty. No hat or dark glasses, no ridiculous disguise. He showed up in a brightly colored T-shirt and flip-flops, with a smile that said he couldn’t wait to spill his secret. His Italian was full of dialect, but I could understand him. He wasn’t looking for complicity of any sort; he had orders to tell me about the speech and didn’t waste time. I remember the story perfectly; it has stayed inside me. The things we remember aren’t stored merely in our heads; I’m convinced that other parts of our bodies remember too. The liver, testicles, fingernails, ribs. When you hear such words, they get lodged there. Each body part sends what it remembers to the brain. More and more I realize that I remember with my stomach, which stores up the beautiful as well as the horrendous. I know that certain memories are there, because my stomach moves. My diaphragm, that membrane rooted at the very core of my body, creates waves. The diaphragm makes us pant and shudder, but it also makes us piss, defecate, and vomit. That’s where the pushing during childbirth starts. Where everything starts. And I’m sure there are places that collect much worse, that store up the waste. I don’t know exactly where that place is inside of me, but I know it’s full. My place of memories, of waste, is saturated. That might seem like a good thing, but it isn’t. Because if the waste doesn’t have anywhere to go it starts worming its way into places it shouldn’t. It thrusts itself into places that collect different sorts of memories. That policeman’s story filled up forever the part of me that remembers the worst things. Those things that resurface just when you start thinking everything’s going better, when you start imagining you’ll finally be able to go home, when you tell yourself it really was worth it after all. It’s in moments like that when the dark memories resurface from somewhere, like an exhalation, like trash in a
dump, buried and covered over by plastic, that somehow finds its way to the surface and poisons everything.
The police officer told me that the young man, his informer, had heard the only lesson worth learning—that’s what he called it—and had recorded it on the sly. Not to betray anyone, but to be able to listen to it again. A lesson on how to be in the world. And he let the officer hear the whole thing; they listened together, sharing the young man’s earbuds.
“Now you have to write about it. Let’s see if somebody gets pissed off . . . which would mean that the young man’s telling the truth. If you write about it and nobody does anything, then either it’s just a load of crap from some B-grade actor, and our Chicano friend is making fools of us . . . or nobody believes the bullshit you write.” He laughed.
I nodded without promising anything; I was just trying to understand the situation. Supposedly it was an old Italian boss talking to a group of Latinos, Italians, Italian Americans, Albanians, and former Kaibiles, the notorious Guatemalan elite soldiers. At least, that’s what the young man said. No facts, statistics, or details. Not something you learn against your will; you just enter the room one way and you come out changed. You’re still wearing the same clothes, have the same haircut, your beard is still the same length. No signs of being initiated, no cuts over your eyebrows, no broken nose, and you haven’t been brainwashed with sermons either. You go in, and when you come out, at first glance you look exactly the same as when you were pushed through the door. But only on the outside. Inside you’re completely different. They didn’t reveal the ultimate truth to you, they merely put a few things in their proper place. Things you hadn’t known how to use before, that you’d never had the courage to take in.
The police officer read me the transcription he’d made. They’d met in a room not far from where we were, seated in no particular order, randomly, not in a horseshoe like they do at ritual initiations. Seated like they do in a club in some small town in southern Italy, or on Arthur Avenue in New York City, to watch the soccer game on TV. But there
was no soccer game on TV in that room, and this was no gathering of friends. They were all members of criminal organizations, of all different ranks. The old Italian gets up. They knew he was a man of honor, that he’d come to the United States after living in Canada for a long time. He begins talking without even introducing himself; he doesn’t need to. He speaks a bastard Italian, some dialect thrown in, mixed with English and Spanish. I wanted to know his name, so I asked the police officer, trying to sound casual, as if it were a passing curiosity. He didn’t bother answering me. There were only the boss’s words.
Them folks who think they can get by with justice, with laws that are equal for everybody, with hard work, dignity, clean streets, with women same as men, it’s only a world of fags who think it’s okay to make fools of themselves. And everyone around them. All that crap about a better world, leave it to them idiots. To the rich idiots who can afford such luxuries. The luxury of believing in a happy world, a just world. Rich people with guilty consciences, or with something to hide. Whoever rules just does it, and that’s that. Sure, he can say he rules for the good, for justice and liberty and all. But that’s just sissy stuff; leave all that to the rich fools. Who rules, rules. Period.
I tried asking how he was dressed, how old he was. Cop questions, things a reporter or a nosy obsessive would ask, believing that the typology of a boss who’d give this sort of speech can be had in the details. The police officer ignored me and kept on talking. I listened, sifting his words like sand in hopes of finding the nugget, the name. I listened to his words but was searching for something else. I was searching for clues.
“He wanted to explain the rules to them, capish?” the police officer said. “He wanted them to really get into it. I’m sure he’s not lying. This isn’t some lazy Mexican wank, I’m telling you. I swear on my life, even if no one believes me.”
The police officer buried his nose in his notebook and started reading again.
The rules of the organization are the rules of life. Government laws are the rules of one side that wants to fuck the other side. And we ain’t gonna let ourselves get fucked by nobody. There’s people who make money without taking any risks, and they’re always gonna be afraid of those who make money by risking everything. If you risk it all, you have it all, capish? But if you think you gotta save yourself, or that you can do it without jail time, without fleeing, without going into hiding, then let me make it clear right from the start: you are not a man. And if you’re not a man, you can leave this room right now, and don’t even hope to ever become one, ’cause you will never ever be a man of honor.
The police officer looked at me. His eyes were two narrow slits, as if he were trying to see words he remembered all too well. He had read and listened to that testimony dozens of times.
Crees en el amor?
Crees en tu corazón?
Your heart stops. No? No love and no heart? So, do you believe in
, in pussy? Well, even pussies dry up after a while. You believe in your wife? Soon as your money runs out, she’ll tell you you’re neglecting her. You believe in your children? As soon as you stop giving them money they’ll say you don’t love them. You believe in your mama? If you don’t nurse her, she’ll say you’re an ungrateful child. Listen to what I’m tellin’ you. You need to live,
. You got to live for yourselves. It’s for yourselves that you need to know how to be respected, and how to show respect.
. Respect the people who are useful to you and despise the ones who aren’t. The people who can give you something get your respect, and the ones who are useless lose it. Somebody
who wants something from you, doesn’t he respect you? Somebody who’s afraid of you? So what happens when you got nothing to give? When you got nothing left? When you’re no longer useful? Then you’re
, rubbish. If you have nothing to give, then you’re nothing,
“So,” the police officer said, “I understood right then and there that the boss, this Italiano, was somebody who counts, who knows what life’s about. Really knows. That Mexican kid couldn’t have come up with that speech on his own. The spic dropped out of school at sixteen; they fished him out of a gambling den in Barcelona. And the way this guy talks, his Calabrian dialect, how could some actor or braggart ever invent that? If it weren’t for my wife’s grandmother I never would have understood a word of it.”
I’d heard dozens of speeches on Mafia moral philosophy—in penitents’ confessions and wiretappings. But this was different; it was like training for the soul.
I’m talkin’ to you; I even like some of you. Some of you, I’d like to smash your face. But even if I like you the best, if you got more pussy or more money than me, I want you dead. If one of you becomes my brother, and I make him my equal in the organization, then one thing is clear: He’s gonna try to fuck me over. Don’t think a friend will be forever a friend. I’ll be killed by somebody I shared my food with, my sleep, everything. I’ll be killed by somebody I ate with, somebody who gave me shelter. I don’t know who it’ll be or I’d already have eliminated him. But it’ll happen. And if he doesn’t kill me, he’ll betray me. Rules are rules. And rules are not laws. Laws are for cowards. Rules are for men. That’s why we have rules of honor. Rules of honor don’t tell you you have to be good, just, upright. Rules of honor tell you how to rule. What you have to do to handle
people, money, power. Rules of honor tell you how to behave if you want to rule, if you want to fuck the guy above you, if you don’t want to be fucked by the guy below you. There’s no sense explaining them. Rules of honor exist, period. They evolved on their own, on and through the blood of every man of honor. How do you choose?
Was that question for me? I searched for the right answer.
How can you choose, in a few seconds, a few minutes, hours, what you should do? If you choose wrong, you’ll pay for it for years, for that quick decision. The rules are always there, but you got to know how to recognize them, you got to understand when they really count. And then there’s God’s laws. God’s laws are contained in the rules. God’s laws—the real ones, though, not the ones they use to make poor fools tremble with fear. But remember this: You can have all the rules of honor you want, but still, only one thing’s for certain. You’re a man only if you know deep down what your destiny is. Poor fools grovel, because it’s easier. Men of honor know that everything dies, everything passes away, nothing lasts forever. Journalists start out wanting to change the world and end up wanting to be editor in chief. It’s easier to condition them than to corrupt them. Each one matters only for himself and for the Honored Society. And the Honored Society says you matter only if you rule. You can choose how, later. You can rule with an iron fist or you can buy consensus. By spilling blood or giving it. The Honored Society knows that every man is weak, depraved, vain. It knows that people don’t change; that’s why rules are everything. Bonds of friendship are nothing without rules. Every problem has a solution, from your wife who leaves you to your group that splits up. The solution merely depends on how much you offer. If
things go poorly, you merely offered too little. Don’t go looking for other explanations.
It seemed like a university seminar for aspiring bosses. What was this?
You have to know who you want to be. If you rob, shoot, rape, deal drugs, you’ll make money for a while, but then they’ll take you and crush you. You can do it. Sure, you can do it. But not for long, ’cause you don’t know what might happen to you; people will fear you only if you stick a pistol in their mouth. But as soon as you turn your back, what happens? As soon as a job goes wrong? If you belong to the organization, you know there’s a rule for everything. If you want to make money, there’s ways to do it; if you want to kill, there are motives and methods; if you want to get ahead, you can, but you have to earn respect, trust, you have to make yourself indispensable. There’s even rules for if you want to change the rules. Whatever you do outside the rules, you never know how it might end. But whatever you do that follows the rules of honor, you always know exactly what it’s going to get you. And you know exactly how the people around you will react. So if you want to be an ordinary man, just keep doing what you’re doing. But if you want to become a man of honor, you got to have rules. And the difference between an ordinary man and a man of honor is that the man of honor always knows what’s happening, while the ordinary man gets screwed by chance, bad luck, or stupidity. Things happen to him. But the man of honor knows what’s gonna happen, and he knows when. You know exactly what belongs to you and what doesn’t; you know exactly how far you can push yourself, even if you want to push past every rule. Everybody wants three things: power, pussy, and money. Even the judge when he condemns bad people, even the politicians, they want
and pussy and power, but they want to get it by showing
they’re indispensable, defenders of the law or the poor or who knows what. Everybody wants money, even though they go around saying they want something else, or doing things for other people. The rules of the Honored Society are rules for controlling everybody. The Honored Society knows you can have money, pussy, and power, but it also knows that the man who’s capable of giving up everything is the one who decides everybody else’s fate. Cocaine. That’s what cocaine is. All you can see, you can have it. Without cocaine, you’re nothing. With cocaine, you can be whoever you want. If you sniff cocaine, you screw yourself all on your own. The organization gives you rules for moving up in the world. It gives you rules for killing and for how you’re gonna be killed. You want to lead a normal life? You want to be worth nothing? Fine. All you need to do is not see, not hear. But remember this: In Mexico, where you can do whatever you want, get high, fuck little girls, drive as fast as you like, the only ones who really rule are the ones who have rules. If you do stupid stuff, you got no honor, and if you got no honor, you got no power. You’re just like everybody else.