Gioacchino Criaco’s Black Souls is set in the remote area of the Aspromonte Mountains in southern Calabria, Italy. This crime novel centres on three boyhood friends: Luciano, Luigi, and the narrator. These boys are raised in poverty: Luciano is an orphan whose father was murdered at the orders of the local crime boss, Luigi is somewhat lazy, and the narrator’s father is a goatherder. These poverty stricken lives are alleviated by lucrative crime–the narrator’s father’s “real trade;” it’s common for the goatherders to keep kidnap victims hidden in the mountains, and the funds from these crimes are a steady source of income.
The novel opens with the narrator crossing the mountains carrying an AK-47. Mention is made of the goats and then there’s the “swine.” But the swine isn’t a pig; it’s a handcuffed man. To the narrator, it’s “normal” to call a man a “swine, the word shepherds of the Aspromonte used for the many hostages we hid away in those intricate woods.” The hostages are “filthy but more profitable livestock,” with a “new pigsty” built every spring as a cage for a hostage. Since the boys grow up with crime as an acceptable source of income, it’s predictable that they will continue when they become men. …
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.
The novel is at first hard to get into as there are many terms regarding various tangled aspects of the criminal enterprises in this region. Once you get past this (and there’s a lot to absorb), you have a tale of boys who slide into crime as a natural progression into the family business. Morality doesn’t enter into the picture: it is irrelevant in this gritty, sometimes ugly, tale.
As these three young men enter adulthood lacking a moral compass, their violent lives are guided by loyalty to one another:
I thought about us as kids, those first heists we’d pulled off so we could dress better at school. Luigi would greedily count the spoils, while Luciano, in his imploring, even prophetic tone, would say, “”Let’s stop while we’re ahead.” But I was the one who drove us forward.
Along this criminal journey, we read about local legends and myths, which in this context, serve to underscore the relentless drive of violence and revenge. This isn’t a pleasant tale, and these are not pleasant people. Occasionally the ugliness is overwhelming, but the narration succeeds in its depiction of an amoral criminal universe. For animal lovers, there’s some animal slaughter and food preparation included. Black Souls has been made into a film, and I suspect I’ll enjoy the film more than the book.
Translated by Hillary Gulley