Pino Imperatore (b. 1961, Milano) is a Neapolitan journalist and author who has deep roots in the Italian comedic writing tradition. As his prize-winning novel Benvenuti in casa Esposito. Le avventure tragicomiche di una famiglia camorrista (Meet the Espositos: The Tragicomic Adventures of a Camorra Family) (Giunti, 2012) indicates, Imperatore is a master of what he calls “realismo comico (comic realism).” Through the lens of this genre, Imperatore takes a hard but often humorous look into the lives of a family tied to the Neapolitan crime organization known as the Camorra.
In Benvenuti in casa Esposito, Tonino Esposito, the ignorant but good-hearted son of the late Camorra boss Gennaro Esposito, is in a funk. As a bribe collector for his father’s replacement, the merciless boss Pietro De Luca, he can’t do anything right. In fact, he’s been put on a forced leave of absence from the Camorra for the summer. While he waits to find out whether he can return to the organization, he has to deal with the hilarious ups and downs of the extended family with whom he lives: his wife, Patrizia; his in-laws, Gaetano Scognamiglio and Assunta Russo; his mother, Manuela Innocenti; his children, Tina and Genny; Olga the manly Ukrainian maid; Samson the iguana and Giggetto the rabbit. To make matters worse, he has nightmares about sadistic Teletubbies and Martians disguised as Brazilian ballerinas. But then Tonino is reinstated into the Camorra, and that’s when things really get crazy.
From a linguistic standpoint, Benvenuti in casa Esposito is a real treasure, rich with Italian varieties (standard, colloquial, bureaucratic, regional), napuletano (Ital. napolitano; Eng. Neapolitan dialect), and even elements of Latin and Spanish. Some of the most flavorful and comedic aspects of the novel derive from the underworld slang, nicknames, exclamations, food, names of fireworks, a saying and neologisms, which are presented in a mix of Italian and Neapolitan.
The language of the Camorra, both real and imagined, sets the tone of the novel. The first of the expressions below is a known criminal expression in Italy, while the second appears to be an invention of the author.
Cavallo di ritorno. (Eng. Return horse.)
Ital. …l’operazione con cui un ladro pretende un riscatto in denaro per la restituzione di un’auto o di una moto rubata.
Eng. …the operation with which a thief demands a redemption in cash for the restitution of a stolen car or motorcycle.
’O pullastro nun s’è cuotto bbuono.
Ital. Il pollo non è cotto buono.
Eng. The chicken isn’t cooked good.
While the nicknames below are among the funniest in the novel, an honorable mention goes to Sabatino Bergerac, who earned his nickname “Bergerac” because of his infallible ability to sniff out the value of heroin or cocaine.
Mezarecchia (Neap. meza recchia; Ital. metà orecchio; Eng. half ear)
Ital. Al centro del viale si ergeva un uomo corpulento: Tatore Mezarecchia. Lo chiamavano così perché durante una rissa un emulo di Mike Tyson gli aveva mangiato un lobo.
Eng. At the center of the avenue rose a corpulent man: Tatore Mezarecchia. They called him this because during a brawl an emulator of Mike Tyson had eaten one of his earlobes.
’o Schiattamuorto (literally, The Deadslitter in Neapolitan, but used to mean Ital. Il Becchino; Eng. The Undertaker)
Ital. L’altro si chiamava Ciruzzo, ma nel rione era conosciuto come ’o Schiattamuorto per la sua abitudine di partecipare, anche senza invito, a funerali e visite di condoglianze.
Eng. The other was named Ciruzzo, but in the neighborhood he was known as ’o Schiattamuorto for his habit of participating, even without an invitation, in funerals and visits to offer condolences.
Naples is known for its colorful expressions, and those below reflect the fascinating (and sometimes disturbing) history and culture of this wonderful city.
Mannaggia a Bubbà!
Eng. Damn Bubbà!
This exclamation refers to a sordid character named Bubbà from the slums of nineteenth-century Naples. At the popular level, he became a scapegoat when things went wrong; and apparently, he continues to take the blame to this day.
Ital. Possa scola’! Ossia: che tu possa consumarti e morire a poco a poco, goccia dopo goccia.
Eng. You can go drain! Or rather: that you can waste away and die little by little, drop by drop.
Used as an insult or a threat, this phrase indirectly refers to the ancient practice of putting dead bodies out to dry (and drain of bodily fluids) in the catacombs of San Gaudioso prior to burial.
Thanks to the descriptions of the New Year’s Eve Feast of Saint Sylvester, the novel is dripping with food. Below are two popular (at least for some) holiday dishes.
capitone (Eng. large female eel)
Ital. Sul capitone si scatenò l’immancabile scontro tra favorevoli e contrari.
Eng. The inevitable fight broke out between the fors and againsts over the eel.
insalata ’e rinforzo (Ital. insalata di rinforzo; Eng. pickled vegetable salad)
Ital. with Neap. Tina, pe’ piacere, scordati ’o capitone e mangiati l’insalata ’e rinforzo.
Ital. Tina, per piacere, scordati il capitone e mangiati l’insalata di rinforzo.
Eng. Tina, please, forget the eel and eat the pickled vegetable salad.
Neapolitans are obsessed with fireworks, and the two mentioned below refer to revered Argentine soccer players Ezequiel Lavezzi and Diego Maradona, both of whom played for Napoli.
capa ’e Lavezzi (Ital. testa di Lavezzi; Eng. Lavezzi’s head)
pallone ’e Maradona (Ital. pallone di Maradona; Eng. Maradona’s soccer ball)
Ital. Sprecò finanche la potentissima capa ’e Lavezzi, la bomba che nell’immaginario collettivo partenopeo aveva sostituito lo storico petardo denominato pallone ’e Maradona.
Eng. He even wasted the extremely potent Lavezzi’s head, the bomb that in the collective Parthenopean imagination had replaced the historic firecracker named Maradona’s ball.
This saying needs no explanation. I only wish we had as vivid an expression in English.
Ogni scarafone è bello a’ mamma soja.
Ital. Ogni scarafaggio è bello a sua mamma.
Eng. Every cockroach is beautiful to its mamma.
Neologisms are new words (in this case, past participles that have been created from nouns) that have entered into colloquial speech. The words below are two of my Italian favorites.
lampadata (literally, lamped, from the noun lampada, or lamp; refers to someone whose tan is from a tanning bed lamp)
Ital. Si avvicinò alla tavola e si sedette alla destra di suo marito Tonino, anni trentacinque sciupati dalla calvizie e da una imbarazzante pancetta, brillantino all’orecchio sinistro, lampadato, ufficialmente disoccupato.
Eng. She approached the table and sat to the right of her husband, Little Tony, thirty-five years old and rundown by baldness and an embarrassing pot belly, diamond in his left ear, salon-tanned, officially unemployed.
palestrato (literally, gymed, from the noun palestra, or gym; refers to a person who is very muscular from working out too much)
Ital. Il rettile, insieme a un suo fratello tatuato sull’avambraccio opposto, apparteneva a un tipo tosto, palestrato, con una faccia da Pitbull a digiuno, che si piantò sull’asfalto di via Don Bosco e, tanto per gradire, dichiarò: “Mo’ m’hai scassato proprio ’o cazzo!”
Eng. The reptile, together with one of its brothers tattooed on the opposite forearm, belonged to a stocky character, muscle-bound, with a face like a hungry pitbull, who planted himself on the asphalt of Via Don Bosco and, just to oblige, declared, “Now you’ve really smashed my dick (i.e., pissed me off)!”
Concluding Remarks: Rarely do I laugh out loud when reading a novel, but Benvenuti in casa Esposito got me laughing (especially when the voice of Tonino’s GPS navigation system was that of a random Neapolitan guy named Romeo). And it got me thinking and hoping: thinking that members of the Camorra are themselves victims of ‘o Sistema (Ital. Il Sistema; Eng. The System) and hoping that the beautiful and seemingly impossibly complex city of Naples could one day aspire to a better future.
Note: I’m excited to report that the sequel to Benvenuti in casa Esposito was released last month. It’s called Bentornati in casa Esposito. Un nuovo anno tragicomico (Welcome Back to the Espositos’: A New, Tragicomic Year) (Giunti, 2013), and it promises to be every bit as entertaining and thought provoking as its predecessor.
In Translation: As of right now, neither Benvenuti in casa Esposito nor Bentornati in casa Esposito are available in English translation. I had the great pleasure, however, of translating the opening chapters of each of these books for Giunti so that they could market them to English-language publishers at upcoming book fairs. Keep your fingers crossed that these amazing books will one day be in U.S. bookstores.
On Film: Rumor has it that both Benvenuti and Bentornati are being considered as either feature films or a TV mini series. I’m hoping that either option happens because this family and its stories are just too lively to stay within the pages of these books.