Saturday, February 23, 2008

Fashion Business

Roberto Saviano
Translated by Virginia Jewiss
301pp. Macmillan. £16.99.
978 0 230 01776 4
US: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25. 978 0 374 16527 7

Gomorrah is the product of several years of investigative journalism in Naples and the Caserta area of southern Italy by a young journalist (born in 1979). Its greatest merit is to show in meticulous detail how the organized crime syndicate in the region, Camorra, has been able to forge relationships of mutual cooperation with a sizeable section of the local and national economies, and how legal and illegal production intersect and support each other. The book aspires to be, and fully succeeds in being, a work of literature: it is written in the first person, in a raw, unadorned yet highly elaborate style. The reader is invited to read Gomorrah as the personal memoir of a young man who cannot turn his analytic gaze away from the evil he grew up with. In Italy, the book has become a literary phenomenon and won a major literary prize. The author is a now a marked man.

Roberto Saviano shows with extraordinary precision the dark side of Italy’s celebrated fashion industry. He tells us that he took part in an underground auction organized by fixers operating on behalf of the fashion houses based in northern Italy and, allegedly, across the Atlantic. The fashion houses turn to fixers to contract out the production of their designs to dressmaking sweatshops in the Neapolitan area. Where does the Camorra come in? Saviano describes a system in which the fashion houses commission several workshops, but pay on delivery to one workshop only; local entrepreneurs therefore need to obtain credit in advance to pay workers. Since this economic activity goes totally unrecorded, firms cannot turn to banks. Instead they fall back on the local Camorra families, which advance credit at highly advantageous rates, between 2 and 4 per cent. Saviano, after witnessing the auction, was invited to a lunch offered by one of the workshops. At the lunch, a representative from the Camorra negotiated the cash advance with the owner.