Silvio Berlusconi, that slyboots politician, used his own television channels to spread propaganda for his Forza Italia (“Let’s Go Italy!”) party and, along the way, established a “videocracy” such as the world has never seen. His ten years in power provided lurid entertainment for the masses (boobs, football, lottery) as well as patronage for family and friends.
Today more than ever, Italians are weighed down by debts and doubts, as are all Europeans. Yet each of the Berlusconi governments managed to survive through a very Italian flair for crisis management. (“How’s your crisis going?” President Reagan once asked the country’s then prime minister Bettino Craxi in 1985. “Very well, thank you,” came the wry reply.) Forza Italia’s supremo was in many ways the embodiment of furbizia – cunning, foxiness. By placing family, business and bunga-bunga parties before the concerns of government he made Italy prey to sinister financiers: increasingly during the early 2000s, political power was sought, not for Italy’s common good, but for nefarious purposes.
Suburra, a razor-sharp political thriller set during the dying days of Berlusconi’s regime in the year 2011 – and first published in Italian in 2013 – unfolds largely on Rome’s outskirts. In the borgate (townships) of Ostia, Centocelle, Cinecittà and Tiburtina, small-time thugs collaborate with hoodlum bankers and property wheeler-dealers to pull off a multi-billion-dollar scam to build a luxury waterfront development in Ostia port. Just as in 1975 the Italian film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini was found beaten beyond recognition and run over by his own car outside Ostia, now here a couple of low-lifers have been murdered in a “Pasolini-style execution” in the same shanty town. The book is fraught with such allusions to Pasolini and his newspaper attacks on political corruption and lends itself to film treatment; already it has been adapted for a Netflix series, available from 6 October.
The authors, Rome-based journalist Carlo Bonini and magistrate-novelist Giancarlo De Cataldo, anticipate the “Mafia Capital” investigations in Rome that, in 2014, revealed the city as a sinkhole of greed and corruption. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a group of Berlusconi-affiliated politicians and former right-wing activists had begun to make a fortune by co-opting migrants and gypsies into loan-sharking, fraud and money-laundering businesses. Among those eventually imprisoned as a result of the investigations was Massimo Carminati, “the last king of Rome”, a gangland mobster with a taste for samurai swords and Tom Ford suits.
The plot of Suburra, fast-paced and brutal, thrills from the get-go. A politician called Pericle Malgradi (part based on Berlusconi) is trying to cover up the death-by-drugs of a Lithuanian prostitute with whom he has just had sex in a plush Rome hotel. (“Suburra” is the Latin name for ancient Rome’s red-light district.) The hotel’s Albanian-born night porter seeks to blackmail the Honourable Malgradi, only to be bumped off by a hit man. So begins a gang war that involves a cast of “steroid-swollen” bouncers, escort girls in latex dresses, bent city commissioners, councilmen and Vatican yes-men. Hovering over them is the shadowy, Carminati-esque master criminal known as “Samurai”, who likes to drink cups of lapsang souchong tea while deliberating cold-blooded murder.
Like Carminati, Samurai owns works by Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, and has read his Ezra Pound, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and other right-leaning authors. His background in neo-fascist militancy is made manifest in a “recreational club” situated in the unlovely borgata of Monte Sacro, where kids use Zippo lighters adorned with the silhouette of Il Duce and the fascist anthem “Faccetta nera” is a ring tone. (It was from just such a murky Black Shirt world that Pasolini’s 17-year-old assassin came.)
Suburra has much in common with Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film La Grande Bellezza, in which Rome is portrayed as a city corrupted into decadence by the work of Berlusconi and his henchmen berlusclones. In the novel’s comic-strip exaggerated violence, political rivals are rubbed out in a Mafia-style “balancing of accounts”. The novel owes much, too, to the work of Italy’s so-called giovani cannibali (young cannibal writers), among them Simona Vinci, Niccolò Ammaniti and Giorgio Vasta, who draw on kung-fu videos, graphic novels and Nintendo games to conjure a spiritually empty, disaffected modern Italy. I have not read such a blistering, grimly absorbing satire of Rome’s kickback and bribery culture in years.