As a man who earns his monthly bread from trying to figure out new ways of saying the same old goddamned things, the concept of the Unidentified Narrative Object has come as a blinding revelation. An Unidentified Narrative Object (UNO) is, in the words of an Italian group of writers calling itself Wu Ming, a blend of non-fiction and fiction used to describe and produce in the reader a giant block of unidentified feelings about a specific subject.
Unlike Truman Capote’s ‘fact+fiction=faction’ and its obsessive hankering for details, the UNO slithers about like a beast, sometimes trodding the path of hard reportage, sometimes flipping over into personal mutterings, sometimes tripping on philosophical ruminations, sometimes diving into novelistic ‘voices’ and sometimes gearing into social theory. And unlike Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘gonzo journalism’, it’s dead serious. The UNO’s only purpose is to get us reacting violently on a subject using all the tricks known in the narrating trade.
The book that led me to the discovery of Wu Ming’s concept of the UNO is the staggeringly graphic Gomorrah by Italian journalist Roberto Saviano. The book burrows deep into the underbelly of the organised crime network of Naples, the Camorra, and tells us in sensual detail how whole towns are destroyed, globe-spanning connections spanning continents affect lives and livelihoods, high-end fashion is stitched to low life, and how in all this, blood flows, not like in the
gangster movies, but banally, like in local car accidents.
Since the 2006 publication in Italy of Gomorrah, Saviano has been under police protection. The mob wants him dead for what he’s written because of its runaway success and its recent dramatisation in film. Saviano’s effectiveness as a journalist is measured by the continuing threat to his life from those whom he’s written about.
The amazing quality of Saviano’s methods is proved by the mixture of fascination and repulsion that it elicits from us readers. Sure, the author’s ‘journalistic methods’ are suspect. He describes a container-load of Chinese dead bodies spilling out in a Neopolitan dock: “The hatches, which had been improperly closed, suddenly sprang open, and dozens of bodies started raining down. They looked like mannequins. But when they hit the ground, their heads split open, as if their skulls were real. And they were.” A page later, Saviano tells us that it is the port crane operator who tells him about the crammed corpses. A page ago, we could have sworn Saviano was there watching the bodies fall.
While reading Gomorrah I started thinking: There are dozens of subjects in this atavistic country of ours whose horrors can be brought into the foreground with feeling, with a force enough to make us fidget. In a saturated media, overkill and blanket coverage clearly leaves us as moved as a porn star is excited about foreplay. A more potent tool, a more rousing style could rustle up the required reactions by using things more than just verified facts, correct sentences and valid quotes.
So is the UNO completely new? In the mid-19th century, an angry not-so-young man, wishing to write his “complete representation of reality” had been, in the words of biographer Francis Wheen, “pushing out beyond conventional prose into radical literary collage — juxtaposing voices and quotations from mythology and literature, from factory inspectors’ reports”, injecting his long, detailed narrative with hardboiled newspaper reports as well as using devilish metaphors (a favourite of mine from an earlier publication: “...all that is solid melts into air” to describe dislocation).
In a way, Gomorrah, with its contemporary descriptions of “capital [being] dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour” is the mini Das Kapital of our times. And to mistake Saviano’s masterpiece as just ‘journalism’ would be to mistake Marx’s tumultuous classic as simply ‘economic theory’. It might not be everything that’s fit to print. But that’s our problem of defining the ‘fitness’ of things.