Black Souls, Gioacchino Criaco
“They called us the “children of the forest,” we descendants of the people who had inhabited the woods of Calabrian massif for millennia, we who’d transformed it into a place of evil, we who’d given up the Aspromonte to conquer another world.”
“Convinced I was saving them, I led them to perdition.”
In the remote Aspromonte Mountains in southern Calabria, Italy three boys, Luciano, Luigi and the unnamed narrator, want to change the life they have. They’re peasants, they’re supposed to know their place, to know that whatever intelligence and ambition they have cannot change their pre-ordained life of poverty; the boys, led by the narrator, think overwise and they decide to break out of their life of poverty through crime. That decision will bring them untold wealth and power, it may also sow the seeds of their destruction. Black Souls is their story and it is one which could only have been written from within, by someone like Gioacchino Criaco who grew up in Calabria. The story is however only one half of a novel, the other is the storytelling and Gioacchino Criaco is a truly mesmerising storyteller.
Black Souls begins on a mountain. The narrator is following is father, a shepherd, as they hike towards a rendezvous where they will have a swinehanded over to them. The swine, a hostage, will be held in his father’s safekeeping until a ransom is paid. It has been that way for many years. It’s also apparent from those opening words that the narrator has a deep respect and love for his father and the mountain, he also respects the relationship between his father and the mountain.
“…the mountain, which rejects hostility, accepted him, and in return he loved it more than anything in the world.”
Despite this love and respect for his father, or maybe initially because of it, the narrator along with his two friends, one an orphan by violence, the other an orphan by drink, start out initially with petty crime. It’s not only pocket money they're after, it’s much needed cash for his family, it’s also never enough and soon after there’s a kidnapping of their own and eventually, drug trafficking and murder. As they spiral downwards it’s also apparent that the son is losing the respect of his father. What’s all the more painful is that as he tells the story, and that of his friends, he can see that for all their successes, there is also blind arrogance, but once the journey has started it’s far too difficult to stop.
Gioacchino Criaco’s Black Souls is an astonishing novel. Rarely have I come across a story told so coldly, with little or no emotion and yet despite this, one which is told so beautifully. Black Souls is destined to remain a favourite novel for decades to come.
In the remote Aspromonte Mountains in southern Calabria, Italy, three best friends embark on a life of crime in order to raise themselves up out of the poverty of their childhoods and the suffering of their parents. 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, since there is no path to riches for poor boys. 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.
Set in the lush Aspromonte forest in an unnamed town inspired by the author’s native Africo, the birthplace of the ‘Ndrangheta, Calabria’s ruthless and ubiquitous mafia, Black Souls 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. The novel tells the cultural history of a disaffected people who have taken destructive paths into organized crime as a means of exploiting a system that has exploited them for hundreds of years.