Our Fetid City

At night the mice and the dogs are masters. The garbage is piled up to the second floor of the houses, and in the darkness it comes alive. Plastic bags and sacks vibrate, emitting the sounds of things pulled apart, scavenged.

By day the rats disappear, the dogs are quiet, and men, women, children reappear. The traffic, normally chaotic, here and there is stopped by overturned garbage cans and the trash that blocks the streets. The garbage — thousands of tons of it — has gone uncollected for three weeks, because all the available landfills are full. The evil odor of decomposition and burning waste moves down the hills of refuse and slides along the streets, enters shops, doorways, houses.

But this city, a million people, keeps going. What makes people angry is not the inhabitants of the suburb of Pianura heatedly protesting the reopening of a garbage dump near their houses, but the more general acquiescence of Naples, the habit of surviving in inefficiency and disorder. Crime, in this city, has become a destiny; it has the power of things that are well known but about which there is nothing to be done.

The garbage in the streets is nothing new; it has decades of history behind it. That organized crime controls the garbage industry and runs a staggering number of illegal dumps, everyone has known for a long time. That a wide range of poisons are buried in Campania, the region around Naples, and that this multiplies by the hundreds the usual risks that human life is exposed to, is known to both ordinary citizens and government officials. That illegality flourishes, and very profitably, under the umbrella of the law thanks to the intervention of politicians of every stripe is not even arguable — it’s a fact, something that’s been happening forever.

Take Antonio Bassolino, the former mayor of Naples and now governor of Campania. That even an honest man like him, coming from the least corrupt political tradition in Italy, couldn’t change anything that really matters, and in fact was slowly swallowed up by the most complicitous inefficiency, is for the Neapolitan (and not only the Neapolitan) the ultimate proof that in Naples there is nothing to be done, that there remains only the quiet impotence of those who manage to get by in the rot.

This deep feeling makes Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s efforts to clean up the mess absurd. A Neapolitan I know laughs, saying to me: “What’s he doing — sending in the army, declaring a curfew, naming a special commissioner. To do what, bludgeon, lock up, torture? Only a fool would believe that what has not been done for decades can be done in the space of a few days.”

No one laughs, on the other hand, when rumors run through the city that in the neighborhoods controlled by the Camorra mob there’s no trash in the streets; it’s in the neighborhoods that are home to respectable people, people who don’t protest and don’t shoot, that the garbage reaches the second floor.

Nonsense, of course. But nonsense that bears witness to the definitive loss of trust in institutions. A resigned loss, by people who no longer believe even in the cleanliness of other places in the world. In Naples the mountains of garbage seem the symbol of a cosmic rot. Here the rot is not only visible; it has the power of portent.

If you know how to look, it’s easy to understand that this stinking, polluted filth, generator of profits both legal and illegal, is not some ancient relic but very modern, and that it underlines the precariousness of every sort of order, in every part of the planet.

Elena Ferrante, the author of The Days of Abandonment and the forthcoming Lost Daughter. This article was translated by Ann Goldstein from the Italian.