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In Naples, the Sopranos' scarier cousins

Journalist Robert Saviano's eyepopping look at La Camorra.

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There's a famous expression in Italian: vedi Napoli, puoi muorire ("having seen Naples, you can die.") Italians consider Naples the most beautiful city in the world.

It is absolutely breathtaking with its rococo architecture and narrow city streets that spread fanlike across sloping hills above the azure waters of the Gulf of Naples and under the looming shadow of Vesuvius – hence, the flattering figurative expression.

However, with Roberto Saviano's bestselling book Gomorrah about the ruthless Neapolitan crime network known as the Camorra out in bookstores, the part about dying may seem more literal.

Napule (pronounced Na-poo-lay), as the natives refer to her, is where Virgil wrote the Aeneid. And no doubt it is Virgil, the voice of Reason in Dante's Divine Comedy, after whom Roberto Saviano fashioned himself as he risked life and limb to record one of the most in-depth accounts ever written about Italy's notorious underworld crime ring and its dealings in the international markets of high fashion, weapons, drugs, construction, and toxic waste disposal.

This is a literary tour de force about The System (the name by which the Camorra refers to itself) and how those in it do their bad-guy business: "To know you are businessmen destined to end up dead or in jail and still feel the ruthless desire to dominate powerful and unlimited economic empires." Beginning at the Port of Naples, which he calls "an open wound," Saviano participates in the offloading of contraband from a Chinese vessel. He calculates that "60 percent of the goods arriving in Naples escape official customs inspection, 20 percent of the bills of entry go unchecked, and fifty thousand shipments are contraband, 99 percent of them from China."

The corruption is so absolute that renting an apartment near the port is no longer possible because every available space is crammed with contraband: "Apartments rented. Gutted. Garage walls removed to make one continuous space. Cellars packed to the ceiling with merchandise."

It's all Chinese merchandise. And true to the Neapolitan affinity for nomenclature, all the Chinese who work in Naples have Neapolitan names. "It's now such common practice that it's no longer surprising to hear a Chinese introduce himself as Tonino, Nino, Pino or Pasquale."

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