Massimo Carlotto’s first-hand experiences of Italy’s violent underworld has heralded a new wave of Italian writers who base their novels on real characters. From the other side of the law, a top Roman judge has dipped into his casebook to write an explosive novel set in the Italian capital, about the city’s notorious gangsters.
Giancarlo de Cataldo’s debut novel, Romanzo Criminale, was inspired by his work as an investigative magistrate in Rome, a role that took him both to crime scenes and prisons. Writers long for the sort of access he has, he says. If one is talented as a writer and has inside knowledge, it is a crime not to put it to use. He based his novel on a real street gang, the Banda della Magliana, a suburban gang that became a real criminal power in the city, “collecting money and imposing a kind of law as if the Mafia had for the first time, taken place in Rome.”
“I first met one of those people from the gang,” said de Cataldo, “he was a repented, he was under protection of justice, but those judges didn’t believe him, so he was set free and then murdered. The second chance was working in a trial against some of the members of these gangs, the survivors, because many of them were dead. They were real criminals, but they were old style criminals at the same time.” Set over a period of a decade, de Cataldo imagines that these people were involved in the darkest parts of the Years of Lead, a time that continues to intrigue Italians to this day.
One of the achievements of Romanzo Criminale is to fold in the lives of real people into the events de Cataldo describes in a responsible way. In 2005, a cinematic treatment with hip characters was released, dubbed the Italian Goodfellas. A pivotal moment in the film deftly flicks between real newsreel coverage of the kidnapping of Aldo Moro and the action of the book, reflecting the twin focus of the book.
De Cataldo also explores the bloodiest event from the Years of Lead, which took place at Bologna railway station in August 1980. In a dramatic moment in the film, a gang member Ice finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time. A fictional character placed in that situation allows the reader to be involved in what might have occurred at the time. Ice arrives at the station at 10:23, and we know that at 10:25 the bomb has to go off. The explosion behind him is an effective reconstruction of the events, extremely disturbing, bringing us directly into the heart of the Bologna bombing, putting us there among the dead, showing us this is not just a fun gangster film.
De Cataldo explains that the film is different from the book, in that there is no coincidence between the gang and the bombing in the book. However, he adds, he wanted to emphasise that much of Italian history is criminal history, and there is a deep link between the lives of the ‘normal’ citizen and offices of the state, and the underworld. “And that is why Romanzo Criminale is more than a thriller – it is a historical and political crime novel.”
[From BBC Four’s Italian Noir – The Story of Italian Crime Fiction.]