Soho Crime is excited for the forthcoming publication of Gioacchino Criaco’s modern Italian classic about Calabrian organized crime. Now an award-winning motion picture, Black Souls, making its English-language debut in early March, is set in the birthplace of the ‘Ndrangheta, Calabria’s ruthless and ubiquitous mafia, The book draws on centuries of brigand lore, peasant rebellion history, mountain mythology, and colonial suffering to offer a gripping morality tale about how violence begets violence.
Gioacchino Criaco was born in Africo, a small town on the Ionian coast of Calabria. The son of shepherds, he graduated from University of Bologna with a degree in law and practiced as a lawyer in Milan until 2008, when his debut novel, Anime Nere (Black Souls), was published to great international acclaim.
The novel begins in the remote Aspromonte Mountains in southern Calabria, Italy, where three best friends embark on a life of crime in order to raise themselves up out of the poverty of their childhoods. Brainy Luciano, the behind-the-scenes schemer, was orphaned as a little boy when the local mob boss had his postman father executed. Lazy, jovial Luigi has learned that there’s no point in following the rules. And completing the triumvirate is the nameless narrator, from whose black soul comes the inspiration and energy for each new criminal project, from kidnapping to armed robbery to heroin dealing to contract killing.
“Rarely have I been so stunned—shocked—delighted by a novel. Black Souls is a raw, savage blockbuster of a narrative, as compelling in its uncompromising brutality as in its mysterious hypnotic beauty. Calabria, home of the ‘Ndrangheta, is as treacherous, lethal and ferocious as any scene from Gomorrah or indeed Suburra. This is a whole other country, answering only to its own fierce code, so different to any other part of Italy. Even as you nigh weep as the inevitable fate of the children of the ‘Ndrangheta, you marvel at the strange bonds of loyalty that infuse their intertwined destinies. Treachery is rife among the three central characters as they progress on the dark road that is the only route out of the appalling poverty of the region. If Cormac McCarthy were born in Calabria, he would have written this novel. Black Souls is as dark and desperate a book as you’ll ever read but the sheer noir alchemy is not to be missed, and what resonates after is the spell woven in beautiful true artistry.” –Ken Bruen
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has been spilled by and has flowed from the children of the forest,
brothers uselessly and stupidly divided.
If only God and the Gods could placate the warrior spirit of their souls,
and drive away the demon that possesses them.
We walked at a clip, wresting ourselves from the damp embrace of the heather and ferns. He marched ahead of me, while I trailed behind like a dogsled. We had already milked the goats and, after closing them into the fold and storing their milk, in the first shadows of nightfall we set off, crossing the mountain and leaving behind our view of one sea in pursuit of another. The delivery of the swine would take place many miles away.
It had been drizzling for days. A heavy camouflage jacket, Spanish military issue, kept the water from drenching my shirt and pants. The steam from my body exited the jacket in puffs, and through the pockets, which opened to the inside, I kept making sure that my AK-47 was dry, and that the safety lever remained on, and not in the full or semi-automatic position. The shock of cold metal added to the adrenaline that was already in my veins.
We traversed forests of holm oak, low and dense, invaded by thorny broom that sometimes won their struggle against our clothing and marked our flesh; the narrow rows of pines, with their branches low and dry, constantly sought out our eyes, forcing us to lower our heads so our cap visors could defend us against their onslaughts; forests of towering, majestic larch trees, whose soft needles concealed deep holes dug by the wild boars, tested the flexibility and stability of our ankles, and one misstep was all it took to end up slung over the strong shoulders of a companion—assuming there was one to come to the rescue. Immense beech trees claimed the flatlands, which were scattered with leaves that produced a deafening crunch in the silent forest.
After we reached the summit and began our descent, the vegetation repeated itself in reverse. Even in daylight, such a hike would have been unthinkable—suicide—for someone with untrained eyes, with its tangled brush, perilous rocks, impulsive torrents, malicious cliffs, and barbed wire fences.
He was in symbiosis with the apparently savage wilderness, merged with it wholly and a part of it, one more of its essential elements: the mountain, which rejects hostility, accepted him, and in return he loved it more than any other thing in this world.
It was his belief that he and the mountain hated only two things: oak trees and swine, both terrible for the environment. The oaks made the soil dry and desert-like, and its fruits nourished the swine, which in turn destroyed the forests, embankments, mushrooms, crops, and pastures.
He knew every step, every tree, brook, cliff, shelter, and pitfall as only a native of these parts could. He had been born and raised here. He had gone away for some time, but the mountain inevitably reclaimed him. Whoever was born of it would die there. And there were only two ways to die: from exhaustion or a lead bullet. It was nearly impossible to escape both fates.
The man in question was my father.
A typical product of this land—thickset, strong, tough. Hardened and fragile at the same time. Above all, determined to resist the rule of law or morals at any cost.
Together, we devoured the road that would take us to the swine, our land’s sustenance and poison.
It was still dark when we arrived. We swept the area in a series of concentric circles that contracted as we went. Not a soul. Only nocturnal animals for company. We sat down on two large rocks downhill from the guardrail that divided the rest stop from the highway. And we waited.
From time to time a noise would shake the silence of night and two headlights would pierce the darkness. Only passing cars. And we would go back to waiting.
After a few hours we heard a different sort of rumble. A truck slowed to a roll and stopped. A door opened and shadows scurried along the guardrail and crouched low to the ground. The truck went on its way.
A few seconds later, the silence and darkness took over again.
I could sense their odors, their thoughts. They weren’t afraid; they knew we were expecting them. Then my father’s clipped, dry whistle dissolved any possible fear: they’d done it, they were safe. The weight of their misdeeds had now been shifted onto my father’s robust shoulders.
Tense, I stepped into the open. The swine walked toward us calmly, upright. I had hoped he would arrive shrunken and imploring, so I wouldn’t be forced to show him any respect or mercy. Instead, he held his shoulders back, his head high. He didn’t fear us, or so it appeared. And his appearance also said that the most important thing, his family, was now far from him and safe. He wasn’t afraid to face us.
Trouble was guaranteed, I thought.
We approached each other in silence. My father took Luciano’s hand, placed it on his shoulder, and led him a safe distance from the road. He did the same with Luigi. Then we took the swine from either side and escorted him over. We would leave at the first light of dawn. And when the time came, my father turned to the swine and spoke to him in a low voice, with a hint of sweetness, explaining that it would be a long journey on foot, that he would remove his handcuffs, that they would stop whenever he felt tired, that he could eat and drink at his every request, and that my father would carry him on his back through the most dangerous stretches. If he didn’t cooperate, however, he would be dragged, forced to crawl along the ground.
The swine nodded and we departed.
We marched at a pace. And after a few hours my father decided that the others needed to rest.
My friends and I did not speak, slapping one another’s backs as we came to a halt. I dropped my backpack, took out a hot plate, and made coffee. I distributed chocolate and biscotti and, in that forest of oaks bathed in the light April rain, I observed the strange company lazing on the ground, waiting for the moka pot to perfume the air with its sputters and spurts. The scene was tranquil but for the heavy hood that covered the swine’s head.
The coffee bubbled up. I poured it into paper cups and passed them around. Luciano was in ecstasy, this was his favorite part of being on the mountain. Whenever he went up he took long hikes for the sheer pleasure of tiring himself out so he could lie against the trunk of a tree, sip the coffee I made for him and, finally, light one of his trademark cigarettes; he always tried to draw out the moment for as long as possible, to savor it even more. After the night he had spent on the truck and the long hike, he was happy to be living life, his cigarette between his lips.
We drank the coffee and ate the chocolate. When Luciano languidly tried to light another cigarette—his third—my father snatched it from his lips and we resumed our journey.
The swine walked peacefully, never asking for water or food, and so we arrived earlier than planned. My father set out ahead of us, accelerating his pace, and upon our arrival we found steaming plates of ricotta and whey with toasted bread on the side. We ate in abundance, and even the swine seemed to appreciate the local dish. My father kept guard while we four, still in our coats, lay on the broom mat by the heat of the gas stove.
A few hours later my father woke us up. The hostage was gone; my father had already taken him to his lodging, he said.
We hid our firearms and our camouflage, we changed, we helped to milk the goats, and then set off in the car down the curving potholed dirt road that led into town.
The next morning, as always, we took the 6:30 bus to the city, where we sat at our desks at the high school for five hours at a stretch to attend lessons.
In those times it seemed normal to me that a man could be called a swine, the word the shepherds of the Aspromonte used for the many hostages we hid away in those intricate woods.
To earn their name, the shepherds, who owned the mountains and everything in them, kept watch over the goats, the only noble beasts that deserved to graze at such harsh altitudes. The goats were companions and friends.
A true shepherd would spit on sheep, even his own idiot flock animals; he feared the cows, with their superhuman senses; and he raised one pig each year, damaging as pigs were to the land, keeping it apart from the other animals and feeding it only whey and scraps. It was an odious beast, but the meat it yielded was essential for enduring the harsh winters.
And, resuming ancient practices that survived in the stories recounted by the elders, a few shepherds would keep a second, secret pigsty in addition to the one near their goat enclosure, perfectly camouflaged in the thick of the forest, for filthy but more profitable livestock. Necessary for the economic development that they had been led to believe was on its way.
That’s how things were back then, for many and also for me.
And for some years this was my father’s real trade, and mine.
At the start of spring, we would build a new pigsty a few miles from the fold. We’d hold a hostage there for four or five months during the mildest season. Once the ransom was paid, we would return the hostage, who was then released in a completely different area.
Generous as he was with all the poor, God had blessed my father with seven children. First me, then five girls, and finally another boy.
As a child, my father had been a shepherd’s apprentice—really a shepherd’s servant. After marrying, he moved away and sent every last lira back home. When he had finally saved enough to buy his own herd, he returned to his mountains.
I can remember a zinc tub from my childhood where each week we would take turns bathing in the same bathwater; we ate pasta or potatoes in a light broth of thinned tomato paste, our clothes were patched and always the same, we wore open sandals in both summer and winter, and we shared a bed with an iron bar in the middle, which I can still feel in the center of my back.
Luciano’s childhood was just like mine, minus a father. He’d never known his own, riddled with buckshot before he was born.
Luigi, the youngest of ten children, with a father who was married to all the taverns in town, had also found in us the family he’d never had.
Childhoods like ours were common to almost all of our peers, yet not all of them ripened into the lethal fruit we did; quiet destroyers of lives, our violence discreet, we would become the most dangerous kind of people.
Outside of our loyalties everyone was an enemy, expendable. With one another we were affectionate, thoughtful, almost sweet.
Our childhood memories had created us—or we were genetically predisposed. Our violence inflicted pain in places and on people who thought themselves safe from us.
By the age of nineteen 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.
That nocturnal trek forever changed our lives and those of so many others. We had long since embarked on a road to hell, and this was the last in a series of many wrong turns. The hostage we went to collect was not part of the usual service we provided for the mafia. That swine we claimed from the mists of the Po Valley was ours alone.
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