From The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples

An excerpt from the Italian

Roberto Saviano
Antony Shugaar
Fish nets hanging on a wall
Gregory Bodnar / Creative Commons

The Paranza Comes from the Sea

The word paranza comes from the sea.

Those who are born on the sea know more than one sea. They are occupied by the sea, bathed, invaded, dominated by the sea. You can stay far away from the sea for the rest of your life, but you’re still drenched in it. If you’re born on the sea, you know there’s the sea of hard work, the sea of arrivals and departures, the sea of the sewer outlet, the sea that isolates you. There’s the sea of filth, the sea as an escape route, the sea as an insurmountable barrier. There’s the sea by night.

At night people go out on the water to fish. Dark as ink. Curse words and not a prayer. Silence. The only noise is the engine.

Two boats set sail, small and rotting, riding so low in the water they practically sink unde the weight of their fishing lamps. They veer off, one to the left, one to the right, while fishing lamps are hung off the bow to attract the fish. Lampare, they’re called. Blinding spotlights, briny electricity. The violent light that punches through the water without a hint of grace and reaches the sea floor. It’s frightening to glimpse the sea floor, it’s like seeing the end of everything. So this is it? This jumble of rocks and sand that is covered up by this immense expanse? Is that all there is?

Paranza is a word for boats that go out to catch fish through the trickery of light. The new sun is electric, the light occupies the water, it takes possession of it, and the fish come looking for it, they put their trust in it. They put their trust in life, they lunge forward, mouths open wide, governed by instinct. And as they do, the net that surrounds them spreads open, rushing swiftly; the meshes stand watch around the perimeter of the school of fish, enveloping it.

Then the light comes to a halt, seemingly attainable by those gaping mouths, at last. Until the fish start to be jammed one against the other, each flaps its fins, searching for space. And it’s as if the water had turned into a pool. They all bounce, and as they race away most of them run smack up against something, up against something that isn’t soft like the sand, but which also isn’t hard like rock. Something that seems penetrable, but there’s no way to get through it. They fish writhe and wriggle up down up down right left and again right left, but then less and less and less, less and less.

And the light goes out. The fish are lifted, to them it’s as if the sea suddenly rose, as if the seabed were rising toward the sky. It’s only the nets being reeled up. Throttled by the air, their mouths open in tiny desperate circles, their collapsing gills look like open bladders. Their race toward the light is done.

The Fuckers and the Fucked
There are the fuckers and the fucked, and nothing more. They exist everywhere, and they always have. The fuckers try to gain advantage from any situation, whether it’s a dinner someone else pays for, a free ride, a woman to take away from someone else, a competition to win. The fucked always get the worst of any situation.

The fucked don’t always seem to like it, frequently they pretend to be fuckers, just as it is only natural that the opposite should exist as well, that is, that many of those who seem to be fucked are actually extremely violent fuckers: they pass themselves off as fucked in order to raise themselves to the rank of fuckers with a greater degree of unpredictability. To seem beaten or use tears and lamentations is a typical fucker strategy.

Let it be clear, there is no reference here to sex: however you’re born onto this earth, man or woman, you’re still divided into one of these two categories. And for that matter, the division of society into classes has nothing to do with it, either. That’s bullshit. What I’m talking about are categories of the spirit. You’re born a fucker, or you’re born fucked. And if you’re fucked, you can be born into any walk of life, into a mansion or a stable, and you’ll still find those who take away what you most care about, you’ll find the obstacle that keeps you back in your work and your career, you won’t be able to harness within yourself the resources to achieve your dreams. Only the crumbs will be left to you. The fucker may be born in a barracks or in an alpine hut, on the outskirts of town or in the center of the capital, but everywhere he turns he will find resources and fair winds, all the cazzimma, or the cruel strong-mindedness, and ambiguity necessary to obtain what he wants. The fucker achieves what he desires, while the fucked allows it to slip through his fingers, he loses it, he lets them take it away from him. The fucker might not even have as much power as the fucked, maybe the fucked has inherited factories and stock, but fucked he remains unless he manages to climb beyond the extra advantage offered him by good luck and laws that favor him. The fucker, on the other hand, knows how to reach beyond misfortune and can figure out how to use laws or pay to sidestep them, or even ignore them entirely.

“From the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule; and there are many kinds both of rulers and subjects.” That’s what good old Aristotle has to say. In other words, to put it concisely, you’re born either fucked or a fucker. The latter knows how to steal and deceive, and the former knows how to be stolen from and deceived.

Look inside yourself. Look deep inside yourself, but if you’re not ashamed, you’re not looking deep enough.

And then ask yourself if you’re fucked or a fucker.

The secret to the fried seafood specialty known as frittura di paranza is knowing how to choose the smaller fish: none of them can be out of balance with all the others. If you get an anchovy bone caught between your teeth, then you picked one that was too big; if you can recognize the squid because you didn’t pick out a small enough one, then it’s no longer frittura di paranza: it’s just a big grab bag of fish you happened to have available. The frittura di paranza deserves the name when everything you’ve used can wind up in your mouth and be chewed and swallowed without identifying it. The frittura di paranza is made with the fish no one wants; only when they’re all put together does it find its true flavor. But you have to know how to bread them, rolling them in the finest-quality flour, and of course it’s the frying that really gives the meal its final benediction. Attaining the exact flavor is the battle that you fight on the iron of the frying pan, on the drizzle of squeezed olive juice, the oil, the soul of the wheat, the flour, the extract of seawater, the fish. Victory is won when it’s all in perfect equilibrium and the paranza has a single flavor in your mouth.

The paranza is over quickly, as it comes into existence it vanishes. Frienn’e magnanno, frying and eating. It needs to be hot the way the sea is hot when they fish it at night. When the nets are hauled on board, on the bottom are these tiny creatures mixed in with the larger mass of fish, undersized sole, cold that have swum too little. The fish is sold off and there they remain, at the bottom of the crates, among the chunks of melting ice. Alone they’re worthless, have no market price, but gathered up in a cuoppo di carta—a paper cone—and fried together, they become prized delicacies. They were nothing in the sea, they were nothing in the fishing nets, weightless in the scales, but several on a plate, they become an exquisite treat. In the mouth, it’s all chomped up together. Together at the sea bottom, together in the net, breaded together, dumped together into the seething oil, together under the tooth and on the palate—one alone, the taste of the paranza. But once on the plate, there is only the briefest of moments to eat: once it cools, the breading separates from the fish. The meal becomes a corpse.

Fast you’re born in the sea, fast fished out of it, fast you wind up scorched in the pan, fast you’re ground between the teeth, fast is the pleasure.

Roberto Saviano is the author of The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples.
Antony Shugaar is a translator.
Originally published:
August 29, 2018


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