Review of 'The Collaborator' by Gerald Seymour (2009)

Review by William W C Scott © 29th July 2023

Gerald has published twenty-five books, many of which I have enjoyed. In this one, which I think the best, he has achieved what every novelist should aim for: a very different move we have not seen before. Here, he deals with the powerful families who control territories in Italy, act outside the law and maintain their power and influence by criminality, lying, ruthlessness, extortion, protection and superb organisation. Every happening, every event in their territory, is witnessed by a large team of children, employed specially, and developed in time, into full time operatives for their many criminal acts in a wide range of business interests.

Gerald has revealed to us how this criminal society operates and why it is so often successful in its fight with the Police and other forces ranged against them. Killing in the street is common and is aided and abetted by the population who seem to prefer the power of the family to the authority of the state. Power is venerated; and murder of anyone opposing the family is taken to be natural. It is as if the population go along with murder in the street because they turn and look the other way. Every chair in an outside cafe, for instance, is turned in the opposite direction, so that 'no one can see the hit' when news of an imminent hit is broadcast on the street by mobile phones. The penalty for not conforming is, of course, dire. The family has its own assassin, an expert gunman, who is driven on a scooter on the pillion, and shoots at close range to disappear at speed, feared and celebrated by the media for his skill.

The plot here is simple. The daughter of Gabriella Borelli, matriarchal head of the family, is Immacolata Borelli who is training as an accountant, deemed a post fitting for a young woman to fill. In London, where she is studying, she meets Eddie Deacon, an English Language teacher in a college and has a brief love affair with him. Then, Immacolata suffers a disaster: her best friend, Marianna Rossetti, dies suddenly because of the illegal spreading of toxic waste by one of the Borelli family's own business interests. [They made their initial fortune by transporting goods of all kinds, including drugs, and soon had a fine fleet of lorries able to cross Europe.] Immacolata meets Marianna's father, Luigi, at the funeral and he calls her 'a whore.' Immacolata is distraught and determines to collaborate with the Italian Legal Forces and be the witness in the trial which will ruin the family and consign its members to prison for life. In turn, she herself is named 'a whore' by her entire family and the whole district, for whom betrayal is as great a sin as could be conceived.

Accordingly, she leaves her course in London and departs without so much as a word of her whereabouts, still less, that she is a member of one of the powerful families of Italy and intends to collaborate with the police, a position of extreme danger for life. She knows that great pressure will be brought upon her by her family to renege on her evidence. The young man, captivated by the thought of her, resigns his job and sets off for Italy in search of her. In Naples, her home city, he asks everyone he meets for the address of the Borelli family, and he is soon reported to the family as a potential solution to its fanatical desire to change her mind.

In the past, many such attempts at collaboration have failed because of the ruthless exploitation of lovers like Eddie. The rule is: in four days, the Prosecutor is sent an ear of the lover, in five days, a finger and soon after, the penis, if there is one. These provided by the family assassin who has access to the kidnapped lover. But the crime by the Borellis has been a highly immoral spreading of the waste on land that children have used for playing.

Numerous lorry loads of toxic waste being spread over the years. Immacolata is so incensed at the death of her best friend, Marianna, that she resists all attempts to divert her from giving evidence against them for all the murders and deaths caused by their actions. What should happen is that the lover who has stumbled into this lions den in Naples is killed and Immacolata should be so affected that she gives up her ambition to avenge her dead friend.

The book is 538 pages and riveting to the last page. In between, we learn just how awful life is in Forcella, the area of Naples ruled by the Borellis, where everyone seems to be against the police, even enjoying the deaths of those who make enemies of the Borellis whose assassin becomes famous in the press.

A great service is achieved by its author: we see the reality of a life (for everyone of the population) that is governed by criminals; and even how ordinary people in war time set up in business after the Allies took back the city and acquired their power by determination, the will to dominate and to tell lies at every turn, if necessary - anything to cement their will; opposition killed in a moment. The church is powerless, by contrast.

Bernard Faulks has a book, 'Paris Echo', that does the same about France in the period just after the doings of the OAS in Algeria. Thousands of Algerians were thrown off bridges into rivers, often with their wrists tied. The novelist should tell us about life as it really is and not allow us to forget it. On p 232 Ch 19 we have: 'Some wild Algerians had brought their struggle to the streets of Paris and had killed about a dozen cops in the course of a year. So the government called in Papon, who'd been a district torturer in Algeria, rounder up of Jews at the Velodrome d'Hiver in 1942 and later on was convicted of crimes against humanity. Just the man. He introduced an 8.30 p.m. curfew on all 150,000 Algerians in and around Paris and sent in police squads to Algerian districts to rough up anyone 'of North African appearance', He told his men to be 'subversive' and that he would cover for them. A demonstration against the curfew was planned, but police blocked every station and road into the city centre. Despite this, about 30,000 Algerians were able to gather and protest. The police, many of them old Vichy militia men who'd escaped trial in 1944, grabbed as many as they could and bussed them off to detention centres where they shot some, tortured some, and knocked out others with truncheons or pickaxe handles. Then, from bridges all through the city, including one at police headquarters near Notre Dame, where Papon was watching, they tied their hands and threw them into the river.'

We can now understand the root cause of the recent riots in France.

© William W. C. Scott