“By the age of 19 we had stolen, robbed, kidnapped, and killed. In a world we rejected because it was not our own, we took anything and everything we wanted.”

Black Souls is the most intense and insightful reimagining of the mafia life I’ve ever read. It will leave you drained, but this is a novel that adds to our understanding of the underbelly of society. In fact, it’s not always the underbelly, it’s in the heart of government, the judiciary, the security services, administration and the legitimate economy.

Black Souls draws us into the era of Italian mafia history, 1970s-1980s, that we have become familiar with from Romanzo Criminale and Gomorrah. This is the story of three young men from Calabria and the ’Ndrangheta, the most powerful of the mafia organisations in Italy, estimated recently to be 3% of the Italian economy. The rise of these young men coincides with the ‘heyday’ of kidnap for ransom and the burgeoning drugs market. Romanzo Criminale was an intellectual insight into the mafia in Rome but it didn’t get under the skin of the men involved in crime the way that Black Souls does. This novel has an emotional core, readers will not romanticise the narrator’s role but will understand more deeply than I’ve seen in English before what is it that makes a young man a mafioso. This is a world where societies values as we understand them (the law, authority, the legitimate economy etc.) hold very little sway. It’s about community, family, brotherhood, however misguided and values, however, perverse, (the myth of honour).

There are two representations of the mafia in literature. The flawed pop thriller that revels in a highly romanticised image of ‘the mob’ which can be entertaining but is certainly not enlightening. It is also sometimes dangerously neglectful of the real human cost of pervasive structural violence. Then there are the investigative novels that offer a genuine insight into the mafia, its grip on the community and the misery it spawns. It didn’t begin with Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia but his excoriating crime novels from the 1950s exposing the tragedy of the mafia hold on the community and control of the political and policing structures still has the power to shock. Two novels in English last year continued that trend of knocking the shine off the mafia: The Piranhas by Roberto Saviano and The Cold Summer by Gianrico Carofiglio. Black Souls is something else again it presents an insider perspective of life in the mafia, from peasant farmer to drug peddler, demonstrating how it is linked to the land, to centuries of tradition, myth and superstition. How ordinary people become inured to the horrors of murder and kidnap so that they almost seem normal and are widely accepted. Ultimately, we see the damage this unfettered culture does to society – it’s incalculable and self-perpetuating. This novel is one of the best novels I’ve read for explaining what it’s like to be part of the mafia, to be a drawn to the romance, to the money but also to know it’s wrong, glamorous – soul destroying. The bonds between land, community, culture and mafia is a lesson for all societies on how violence takes a grip on people. It does make me think about our failure to understand what is going on in London gang culture that has led to a surge in knife crime among young people. We condemn it but don’t know how to combat it.

This account of a gangster life is, at times, so powerful it has the feel of a memoir. So much so that I checked again that it is a work of fiction, that Criaco is actually a lawyer turned writer and not one of the three ‘brothers’ represented here. This is a chilling and dark representation of the scourge of organised crime.

Black Souls is not so much gritty as earthy, of the soil, the story of peasants from the land, ordinary boys – it’s a roots up story – this is Calabria. Nothing grand or grandiose, nothing glamorous, a grounded story of young men becoming gang members, moving from kidnapping to murder and drugs. From small origins in the Aspromonte mountains to violent crimes across the country and control of the heroin market in Milan.

While many novels about the mafia concentrate on the macro picture, Back Souls is very personal. We get a sense of the romance of the land, the old languages and ancient peoples who first settled here, the customs and myth and the grip of the ‘Ndrangheta that has managed to maintain its grip despite change (cars, electricity, newspapers, unions, government etc.).

The narrator let’s us know early on that loyalty to your family and your friends is more important than anything in Calabria, in this small village in the Aspromonte. His friends Luciano and Luigi are his brothers. Black Souls opens in the middle is a kidnapping; first the goats have to be milked then they can take the “swine” to a new hideout preparing for his release (the depersonalised victim). They march across the mountains from one coast to the other. The narrator is the youngest of six children, he has five sisters. Luigi is one of ten and Luciano’s father was killed before he was born. Scores are settled, vendettas affect all families, it’s being going on for centuries. This is their rites of passage.

This kidnapping is different, the boys have been working for the local malandrino (boss), but this is a private venture, they are branching out:

“That swine we claimed from the mists of the Po Valley was ours alone.”

He admits to falling in love with ‘these’ people, the gangsters, while Luciano is sceptical, he knows their worth:

“The real malandrini were ruthless, and although they cloaked themselves in completely amoral and falsely benevolent principles, their Souls, which they had sold to the devil or whomever else, had fetched a steep price.”

Sometimes, the boys look after the ones from the north who needed shelter, the ‘shadows’, fugitives from the law or a private dispute that can only end in one way: The Black Soul is the victor, the blacklisted are the victims.

“…when a malandrino had an enemy he didn’t consider be dangerous, he’d shoot him and do nothing to hide it. If the enemy was dangerous, he needed to be eliminated without consequences; it was therefore necessary to find someone else who would pull the trigger or who could take the blame.”

When the boys overhear a postmaster boasting of the money in his vault, a shipment from a broken down security van they rob him, 150M Lira. They wind up in hiding themselves. The boys graduate, commit crimes in Naples and Milan. When kidnapping loses its glamour and the authorities react, they find a new multi-billion Lira trade:

“…the Slavs and the blacks bring in women to comfort the same guys from Milan we used to imprison in the mountains; except now, with the help of the Turks, we deal them brown sugar instead” [Sante]

It’s a story you know is real and yet it’s born of a myth. Old war stories handed down, perverted values (the cuckold is to be despised, family honour must be defended at all costs), rose-tinted memory. When the good times hit Milan in the eighties they were there to supply the party and cripple the law with their money. They had politicians, entrepreneurs, and judges across the country in their pockets. Most depressing if all may be that it was all so easy:

“We didn’t go seeking the Turkish drug connection; the drugs had coming looking for us.”

By the end of the eighties everything is souring for the boys, now men, new criminals are moving in: Slavs, Albanians, Africans Arabs.

Black Souls is a poignant and, as I have said, insightful account of the mafia nightmare. If you have a romantic image in your head this novel will cure that.

Anime Nere, or Black Souls, was published in Italy in 2008. This translation by Hillary Gulley conveys the power of the original beautifully.

Paul Burke 5/4

Black Souls by Giocchino Criaco
Soho Crime 9781616959975 hbk Mar 2019