Pino Imperatore was born in 1961 in Milan to Neapolitan emigrant parents. He lives in Aversa and works in Naples where he created and founded Achille Campanile, a laboratory of comical and humorous writing, and the Gruppo Umoristi Ludici Postmoderni (Postmodern Ludic Humorist Group) (GULP). Since 2005, Imperatore has also been in charge of the Comic Writing section of the prestigious Massimo Troisi Prize.
Imperatore’s first novel, Benvenuti in casa Esposito (Meet the Espositos) (Giunti 2012), was awarded the Città di Latiano, Umberto Domina and Giancarlo Siani prizes, and last month Giunti Editore published the awaited sequel, Bentornati in casa Esposito (Welcome Back to the Espositos’). I recently had the opportunity to speak to the author about the roles of comedy and language in his writing, and about the many fascinating and funny cultural referents in his novels.
Your books Benvenuti in casa Esposito and Bentornati in casa Esposito deal with a serious subject: the Neopolitan criminal organization called the camorra. What is the role of comical language in the two books?
In my two novels, comedy has the role of making people understand how ridiculous and stupid the camorra is in all its manifestations. It wasn’t easy to put this stylistic and narrative choice into practice, mainly because criminal phenomena are almost always treated with austerity and formal severity. I took an alternative route, and I believe that I won the challenge: Benvenuti in casa Esposito and Bentornati in casa Esposito are read and studied in schools and universities and have been selected as a model by antimafia associations, civic boards, public institutions and groups that fight for legality. I’m very happy about this, and I will continue in this commitment to the best of my ability.
Many contemporary Neapolitan writers avoid the use of dialect in their works. Why did you decide to incorporate dialect into your books about the Espositos?
Because Neapolitan is much more than a dialect. It’s a true and proper language, marvelous in all its nuances. It has very ancient origins, and with time it has acquired lexical “loans” from the peoples that have dominated the city in the course of the centuries: the Greeks, the Normans, the Spanish, the French. Even the Americans, during the second world war, positively influenced Neapolitan. The term sciuscià, for example, which refers to a bootblack and was used by the great Vittorio De Sica as the title of one of his films, derives from the expression shoeshine.
Where does the clever phrase that opens Benvenuti in casa Esposito, that is, ’o pullastro nun s’è cuotto bbuono (the chicken ain’t cooked good), come from?
It’s one of my inventions that was inspired by reality. In some criminal organizations, they adopt a coded language that all of the affiliates have to follow when they exchange messages at risk of being intercepted. These involve very imaginative and complex phraseology. In my novels, the De Luca clan employs funny statements like S’è otturato ’o scarico d’ ’o gabinetto (The bathroom drain is clogged), which indicates the lack of escape routes from a place in which a crime has been committed, and Ce simme pigliato nu cafè speciale, cu ’o zuccaro fino fino (We got ourselves a special coffee, with super fine sugar), which signals the arrival of a very fine batch of cocaine. So as not to raise suspicion, the clan’s slang expressions reference commonly used items, seemingly banal actions, typical products and sayings. Acchiappa a Peppe! (Catch Pepe!) means that they need to track down an absconder. Puortame ’na scatula ’e cunfietti (Bring me a box of confetti) indicates a request for ammunition. ’O ciuccio chiamma recchialonga ’o cavallo (The donkey calls the horse long ear) means that a subordinate has offended the boss. Nun sputa’ ’ncielo ca ’nfaccia te torna (Don’t spit in the sky because it’ll hit you in the face) is a warning: be careful of what you do, because it can backfire on you.
In Benvenuti in casa Esposito, Tonino and his cousin Peppe ’o Sistimato (The Systemizer) engage in an impressive pyrotechnic battle with a capa ’e Lavezzi (Lavezzi’s head), a Crazy Wife, a Banditos, a provolone del monaco (monk’s provolone) and so many others. Are the names of the fireworks all authentic?
Yes, they’re all real, and they bear witness to an incredible creativity. During last New Year’s Eve, after the fear about the end of the world had passed, they exploded many bombe Maya (Mayan bombs) in Naples. Sadly, the most well-known firework remains ’o pallone ’e Maradona (Maradona’s ball): a true and proper device, which is extremely dangerous. Every year, on the Night of Saint Sylvester, despite bans and appeals from the authorities, Naples and the entire surrounding area become colorful and noisy backdrops for fireworks of every type.
Ciruzzo ’o Schiattamuorto (The Undertaker), the merciless bodyguard of the camorra boss Pietro De Luca, speaks bureaucratic Italian. What inspired Ciruzzo’s unusual language?
With the character of Ciruzzo, I wanted to represent one of the many contradictions of the camorra. ’O Schiattamuorto is a cruel killer, and yet he loves jurisprudence and the law. He is an educated person, and he uses a bureaucratic language that he acquired during the period in which he worked in the office of one of his uncles, a real-estate attorney. He spends his free time going to funerary services, and he cries most at the funerals of the people he himself killed. All criminals are like this: they don’t have a logic or a coherence. Their actions defy every “normality.”
There are many fantastic nicknames in the books, for example, Tatore Mezarecchia (Half Ear), Tummasino ’a Ricotta (The Ricotta), Wanda ’a Riggina d’ ’o Tarocco (The Queen of the Tarot Cards) and Furtunato ’o Filtro (The Filter). How did you choose them?
In the popular quarters of Naples, people and families are recognized more by their nicknames than their surnames. The nickname denotes a sense of belonging to a determined social context and often indicates a trade or even a physical or behavioral characteristic of an individual. I nicknamed Genny Esposito, the young son of Tonino and Patrizia, ’o Piranha (The Piranha) because he eats everything, with great gluttony. I called Ciccio ’a Botta (The Blow) because he is a swindler who deals in cars: he fakes an accident, obtains false medical certificates that confirm presumed injuries owed to the “blow” against the car and asks for compensation for damages from the insurance companies. Donna Rachele, on the other hand, is nicknamed ’a Burzetta (The Handbag) because she is a greedy person, attached to the money that she protectively slips into a handbag.
Tonino often consults with ’o Capitano (The Captain), una capuzzella (a skull) in the Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples. Unlike Tonino, ’o Capitano speaks a rather cultured Italian. How did you choose the language of this legendary skull?
According to legend, the skull of ’o Capitano belonged to a Spanish official who died in Naples centuries ago. I immersed myself in the character, and I reproduced his way of thinking and speaking. ’O Capitano is Tonino’s critical conscience: he tries in every way he can to make him think, to distance him from the underworld and to get him to understand how important it is to celebrate the extraordinary culture, art and traditions of Naples.
The saga of the Espositos will be either in the cinema or on TV and also at the theater. But can readers hope for another book about the Esposito family?
I already have one in mind, and I hope to be able to write it as soon as possible to complete the trilogy.
Will your books be translated in the United States?
I hope so because there are so many families and people of Neapolitan origin in America, many of whom are actually named Esposito, which is the most common Parthenopean surname.
Note: I would like to thank the author for granting me an interview and for giving readers an extremely provocative and entertaining glimpse of his beloved Naples. Thanks also to LeeAnn Bortolussi and Annalisa Lottini at Giunti Editore for their kind help with this interview. To learn more about Pino Imperatore and his books, please visit his Facebook fan page and the page for Humour Lab Pino Imperatore. And don’t forget to read my post on Benvenuti in casa Esposito!