I Am the Market
What kind of craziness are they teaching in Italian journalism schools these days? The new generation of Italian nonfiction crime writers has gone rogue, forsaking the ancient gods of clarity and journalistic remove, and instead going so deep into criminal netherworlds that the criminals’ voices and the writers’ have become indistinguishable. Writers like Roberto Saviano have embraced the nonfiction version of what some are calling “the New Italian Epic”—a sprawling, undisciplined form whose goal is not to explain the netherworld but to become, in a way, part of it. (This undertaking can be as dangerous as it sounds, as in the case of Saviano, whose 2006 exposé Gomorrah so angered the criminal syndicates of southern Italy that they put a contract on his life.)
At 192 pages, Luca Rastello’s I am the Market is the shortest of these epics, and probably the one that tries hardest to get into the minds of its subjects. Told in the voice of a convicted Italian cocaine smuggler, the book is structured as five cautionary “lessons.” The smuggler imparts many practical tips for the would-be narcotrafficker (mask your shipments with coffee or mustard—dogs will sniff right past ketchup), but is strongest when giving a glimpse of the life of those living a few steps ahead of the law and the competition, and of the death of those to whom the competition and the law have caught up.
The early lessons recount the misadventures of unfortunate colleagues in Latin America. These tend to end very badly, with decapitations and worse. As the narrator scales up in the final lessons and begins describing his own work, which involves smuggling cocaine by the ton, the business becomes both more lucrative and safer. In cocaine smuggling, as in most other aspects of life, fortune favors the brave, and punishes those who try to sneak by just a little at a time. The small-timers—the ones who grease up a few condoms full of blow, then gobble them down in an airport bathroom and hope the latex doesn’t rip before they get to a toilet on the other side of customs—earn pay-offs in the low thousands, with a risk of three years in the slammer. The condom-gobblers and other small-time mules are playing a mug’s game, and just waiting to be busted or, as is all too often the case, murdered by their paymasters. The unluckiest are Brazilian peasants, lured out of grinding poverty and ultimately slaughtered in a swamp. “The cleaning up afterward was done by the anacondas and crocodiles,” the smuggler says. “In a very short time not a trace remained.”
So far, so ghastly. What’s most amusing in this sick narrative, however, is the jarring and faintly ridiculous shift in tone in the final two lessons, which explain the techniques of bulk smuggling. Scaling up the quantity of drugs vastly scales up the profit, but only slightly increases the jail-time: when you start moving cocaine by the ton, you graduate into multi-million-dollar pay-offs, with a lower risk of capture, and a potential sentence of just a couple decades. A ton of cocaine is roughly six heaping wheelbarrow loads, and delivering these amounts multiple times per year made the narrator extremely wealthy until his betrayal to Italian police.
The narrator sounds at first like an amoral thug, then like an amoral supply-chain manager. He is a maestro of doctored paperwork and concealed shipments. The banality screams from the page; the phrase “integrated systems of transport and delivery” has never been deployed so ruthlessly. Those who move cocaine in bulk are called sistemistas, and their signature trick is to secrete their product in large industrial shipments and sneak them through customs under the names of reputable Italian companies. The trick, he says, is to avoid bribing anyone (“all it takes [to get busted] is a drunken customs officer boasting to a whore”) and, instead, rely on an “almost demonic ability to infiltrate shipments of healthy, virginal companies without their knowledge.”
The product itself traveled (the method is blown, and probably won’t work anymore) in shipments of fine marble tiling. “The expenses are always small change,” he advises, so don’t skimp on the quality of the marble; the fine white Cararra marble that Michelangelo used for the Pietà is suitable for toilets, so nice black stone at twice the price is easily worth it, since it will attract less suspicion. The narrator gives long, lovingly detailed advice on how to drill the marble to fit the cocaine. “Use a 16-centimeter bit and the plug comes out perfectly,” he says. “What you need is a little disk about 15.8 centimeters in diameter and 15 centimeters long.”
This is Pablo Escobar meets Bob Vila. I find that the wild swings in tone and the relentless amorality of the narrator are at times difficult to take: a sociopath is still a sociopath, and 192 pages in the company of one is no less tiring because he turns out to be an ingenious smuggler with home-improvement tips. The catalogue of botched smuggling jobs and dead campesinos in the early lessons does serve to remind us how serious this business is; perhaps the business is also serious enough to merit a footnote or two, and a rounder perspective than that offered by the narrator alone. The book is lurid and sensational, in the best and worst senses, and doesn’t pretend to be more than a confessional by its principal source. It would have been nice, though, for it to speak more broadly about the consequences of this trade and the desperation of those less ingenious than the narrator. Unfortunately, many of the bit players in this sordid drama—including all the ones who are in the business for normal human motivations, such as desire to feed their starving families—are either dead and buried, or working their way through the guts of a swamp-snake. It’s a pity they weren’t available for an interview, too.
Originally appeared in The Barnes & Noble Review.