Risto— Aristofano Al’Kair— is a rarity in contemporary Italy, an immigrant success story out of Africa. Born in Mogadishu, he’s earned Italian citizenship and lives in Naples with a wife native to the city, and here he runs a successful art gallery in a good neighborhood. Here near the novel’s start, a couple of disturbing developments have left Risto unsettled, heading on foot up from downtown to a sketchier neighborhood, home to his distant relative Eftah. This older immigrant is gay and has shakier legal standing, in Italy, yet has made a home and remains Risto’s closest thing to family.
The metropolis rose from the sea’s edge in parallel boulevards, gently graded, a staircase down which a baby giant would clamber to its wading pool. Not that the piazzas had clean right angles or perfect circles. Anyone looking for plumb-bob geometry should try Bologna. But coming down or climbing up, you moved through a grid laid out by the Greeks, rough rectangles of east-west decumani and their connectors. The culture remained in business day to day and yet, with just a look around, it took you back three thousand years. No other downtown on the continent could claim such antiquity, almost so old as to rival the urban centers over in what used to be called Mesopotamia. Or down in, what was the name they’d liked, Abyssinia? Granted, those cities, South and East, had been reduced to rubble, and much of time the damage was done by barbarians out of the North. Still, a place like Ur, or Zeila on the Horn, they’d been the originals, in which tribes who’d formerly called each other devils came together in a space that wasn’t inferno. Mixing races, they’d given rise to a royal line. The first king had been a kind of clandestino, the love child of Solomon and Sheba.
An unlikely thought for a European businessman on a weekday. But once Risto finished his dealings with local law enforcement, he put his back to the water and began to climb, and up in his head the route was stranger. The hike took him above the quadrilaterals, up past the Museum with its high-quality rubble. Here the streets developed kinks, asymmetrical, prime territory for the Little Window. The layout followed what used to be footpaths. A hilltop like Materdei, forty-five minutes’ hike from the island ferries, eschewed the lower city’s logic. Granted, even a rough neighborhood got office traffic, and the crowd included coats and ties. But when you came out on a penthouse balcony like Eftah’s, no farther from the centro than a catapult might sling a cobblestone, you could see that, not so long ago: the land at your feet had been countryside, fertile with Vesuvian nutrients. Where there hadn’t been vineyards or orchards, there must’ve been goats.
Then what advantage did Naples have over the cities put up by men Risto’s color? Why hadn’t Naples been left in shreds, turning back to weeds and scrub?
He had no answer by the time he’d reached the top of the hike, the piazza for Materdei’s namesake cathedral. The Camorra place was easy to spot: all that chrome. If you took a table in the sun, the metal could singe your arm. Risto had wondered about that, the bar so bright, the clientele so shady. He’d asked about it once, during a night out. His wife had joined Eftah at the Palestinian place in Piazza Bellini, and they’d laughed at his question, though nicely. Risto was talking poetry, they said, metaphors, per carità. The choice of chrome was a business decision. The System used the materials they could get the cheapest, and when they needed a front, they preferred a bar to a restaurant. A pizzeria required permits, contracts, and if the baker knew his way around an oven, the mob wound up with an actual going concern. A satisfied customer was nothing but fuss and bother to the malavita. They weren’t about neighborhood development.
But any junky could make a cup of coffee, and up in Materdei, they seemed to have one behind the counter. If this place had been down by the docks, a pit stop for the mob whores, the kid would never have gotten away with such a watery brew. The hookers on the Camorra payroll could be as bloodthirsty as their gangster bosses. Risto forced down the coffee and asked for water, a bottle of Vera, please. He needed to rehydrate before he joined Eftah and a couple of scary pals, the three of them lounging amid the chrome.
Risto had learned to check at the café before he tackled the last steep block up to the cousin’s palazzo. The piazza was a box of midday heat and other, than the cluttered baroque church, nothing but the featureless jiffy concrete of the recent sprawl. The best air conditioning was in the bar; a good unit somehow fit the malavita budget. Risto’s big relation saw no reason not to take advantage, and at his table everyone got quick service. Guys like these fetched the barista with no more than a jerk of the chin, a bark and wave brought beer and sandwiches from the nearby deli. You could see the deli’s runner darting through the traffic, his apron up over his bag arm, and you noticed too the outfits on the men waiting, a mashup of gym clothes and dress shirts. This was their office, though one at least was always too large for an office. A no-neck behemoth, he’d flaunt his nickname, making sure that everyone knew it: a name out of a cartoon or a dumb movie.
“Jabba the Hut” was this afternoon’s muscle. Just now, breakfast time for him, the Hut sat enjoying a laugh. The back of his immense head, with its bags and creases and curls, looked a lot scarier than his cud-chewer’s face, all smiles
Laughing with them was Eftah: a crooked landlord, networking in a Mafia town. Collusion in fact was one of the big clansman’s favorite lecture subjects: Risto, you should’ve seen it in 1980, after the last big quake.
Actually, Eftah hadn’t been here in 1980. He’d left Mogadishu among the first wave, following the coup of ’91. Still: You should’ve seen it, government money, UN money, money from America. I980, oh my, it was everywhere. All the bad guys had to do was show up with a bucket.
The bad guys. This was the point of Eftah’s lecture, or one of them: that he himself belonged in a different category. The Black Lord of No-Account Real Estate, as he styled himself, might charge market rent, plus, but he honored his leases and kept up repairs. You had to admire the man’s instinct for the lesser evil, and it could be that’s what had prodded the gallery owner into his forced march up from the old centro. Could be he’d yearned for the lesser evil. From where Risto stood he could see the alternative, the thug economics in play all over town.
“Eftah,” he said “amico. Could we talk?”
“Talk?” The Hut gave a full-body chortle, his chair yelping. “Talk, is that what you fags call it?”
Eftah blew the man a kiss. He tried to make introductions, but the mobster cut him off. “Why would we, would want to meet your latest fuck-buddy? Whaddya think we’re running here, a gay bar?”
Mildly Eftah met his gaze. “A gay bar and a nigger place.”
The laughter itself might’ve been made of chrome.
“Oh my, you don’t see it coming, really?”
The murderers at the table quieted, squinting.
“Don’t you see it’s simply a matter of time? It’ll be the same here as everywhere. Everywhere, you’ll have a gay bar, plus a nigger place.”
Eftah kept it mild, and Risto had caught the show before. The Black Lord’s Third Millennial Minstrel Show, he’d seen it a few times now, and already he noticed the smiles breaking out around the audience. But was it any way for him to spend his lunch? A European businessman on a weekday?