P A R T O N E
T H E P O R T
The container swayed as the crane hoisted it onto the ship. The spreader, which hooks the container to the crane, was unable to control its movement, so it seemed to float in the air. 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. Men, women, even a few children, came tumbling out of the container. All dead. Frozen, stacked one on top of another, packed like sardines. These were the Chinese who never die. The eternal ones, who trade identity papers among themselves. So this is where they’d ended up, the bodies that in the wildest fantasies might have been cooked in Chinese restaurants, buried in fields beside factories, or tossed into the mouth of Vesuvius. Here they were. Spilling from the container by the dozen, their names scribbled on tags and tied with string around their necks. They’d all put aside money so they could be buried in China, back in their hometown, a percentage withheld from their salary to guarantee their return voyage once they were dead. A space in a container and a hole in some strip of Chinese soil. The port crane operator covered his face with his hands as he told me about it, eyeing me through his fingers. As if the mask of his hands might give him the courage to speak. He’d seen the bodies fall, but there’d been no need to sound the alarm or alert someone. He merely lowered the container to the ground, and dozens of people appeared out of nowhere to put everyone back inside and hose down the remains. That’s how it went. He still couldn’t believe it and hoped he was hallucinating, due to too much overtime. Then he closed his fingers, completely covering his eyes. He kept on whimpering, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying.
Everything that exists passes through here. Through the port of Naples. There’s not a product, fabric, piece of plastic, toy, hammer, shoe, screwdriver, bolt, video game, jacket, pair of pants, drill, or watch that doesn’t come through the port. The port of Naples is an open wound. The end point for the interminable voyage that merchandise makes. Ships enter the gulf and come to the dock like babies to the breast, except that they’re here to be milked, not fed. The port of Naples is the hole in the earth out of which what’s made in China comes. The Far East, as reporters still like to call it. Far. Extremely far. Practically unimaginable. Closing my eyes, I see kimonos, Marco Polo’s beard, Bruce Lee kicking in midair. But in fact this East is more closely linked to the port of Naples than to any other place. There’s nothing far about the East here. It should be called the extremely near East, the least East. Everything made in China is poured out here. Like a bucket of water dumped into a hole in the sand. The water eats the sand, and the hole gets bigger and deeper. The port of Naples handles 20 percent of the value of Italian textile imports from China, but more than 70 percent of the quantity. It’s a bizarre thing, hard to understand, yet merchandise possesses a rare magic: it manages both to be and not to be, to arrive without ever reaching its destination, to cost the customer a great deal despite its poor quality, and to have little tax value in spite of being worth a huge amount. Textiles fall under quite a few product classifications, and a mere stroke of the pen on the shipping manifest can radically lower price and VAT. In the silence of the port’s black hole, the molecular structure of merchandise seems to break down, only to recompose once it gets beyond the perimeter of the coast. Goods have to leave the port immediately. Everything happens so quickly that they disappear in the process, evaporate as if they’d never existed. As if nothing had happened, as if it had all been simply an act. An imaginary voyage, a false landing, a phantom ship, evanescent cargo. Goods need to arrive in the buyer’s hands without leaving any dribbling to mark their route, they have to reach their warehouse quickly, right away, before time can even begin—time that might allow for an inspection. Hundreds of pounds of merchandise move as if they were a package hand-delivered by the mailman. In the port of Naples—330 acres spread out along seven miles of coastline—time undergoes unique expansions and contractions. Things that take an hour elsewhere seem to happen here in less than a minute. Here the proverbial slowness that makes the Neapolitan’s every move molasses-like is quashed, confuted, negated. The ruthless swiftness of Chinese merchandise overruns the temporal dimension of customs inspections, killing time itself. A massacre of minutes, a slaughter of seconds stolen from the records, chased by trucks, hurried along by cranes, helped by forklifts that disembowel the containers.
COSCO, the largest Chinese state-owned shipping company, with the world’s third-largest fleet, operates in the port of Naples in consort with MSC, a Geneva-based company that owns the world’s second-largest commercial fleet. The Swiss and Chinese decided to pool together and invest heavily in Naples, where they manage the largest cargo terminal. With over 3,000 feet of pier, nearly a million and a half square feet of terminal, and more than 300,000 square feet of outdoor space at their disposal, they absorb almost all the traffic in transit for Europe. You have to reconfigure your imagination to try to understand the port of Naples as the bottom rung of the ladder of Chinese production. The biblical image seems appropriate: the eye of the needle is the port, and the camel that has to pass through it are the ships. Enormous vessels line up single file out in the gulf and await their turn amid the confusion of pitching sterns and colliding bows; rumbling with heaving iron, the sheet metal and screws slowly penetrate the tiny Neapolitan opening. It is as if the anus of the sea were opening out, causing great pain to the sphincter muscles.
But no. It’s not like that. There’s no apparent confusion. The ships all come and go in orderly fashion, or at least that’s how it looks from dry land. Yet 150,000 containers pass through here every year. Whole cities of merchandise get built on the quays, only to be hauled away. A port is measured by its speed, and every bureaucratic sluggishness, every meticulous inspection, transforms the cheetah of transport into a slow and lumbering sloth.
I always get lost on the pier. Bausan pier is like something made out of LEGO blocks. An immense construction that seems not so much to occupy space as to invent it. One corner of the pier is a latticework of wasps’ nests. An entire wall is covered with bastard beehives: thousands of electrical outlets feed the “reefers,” or refrigerator containers, filled with frozen foods, whose tails are attached to the nests. All the TV dinners and fish sticks in the world are crammed into these icy containers. At Bausan pier I feel as if I’m seeing the port of entry for all the merchandise that mankind produces, where it spends its last night before being sold. It’s like contemplating the origins of the world. The clothes young Parisians will wear for a month, the fish sticks that Brescians will eat for a year, the watches Catalans will adorn their wrists with, and the silk for every English dress for an entire season—all pass through here in a few hours. It would be interesting to read someplace not just where goods are manufactured, but the route they take to land in the hands of the buyer. Products have multiple, hybrid, and illegitimate citizenship. Half-born in the middle of China, they’re finished on the outskirts of some Slavic city, brought to perfection in north-eastern Italy, packaged in Puglia or north of Tirana in Albania, and finally end up in a warehouse somewhere in Europe. No human being could ever have the rights of mobility that merchandise has. Every fragment of the journey, with its accidental and official routes, finds its fixed point in Naples. When the enormous container ships first enter the gulf and slowly approach the pier, they seem like lumbering mammoths of sheet metal and chains, the rusted sutures on their sides oozing water; but when they berth, they become nimble creatures. You’d expect these ships to carry a sizable crew, but instead they disgorge handfuls of little men who seem incapable of taming these brutes on the open ocean.
The first time I saw a Chinese vessel dock, I felt as if I were looking at the production of the whole world. I was unable to count the containers, to quantify them. I couldn’t keep track of them all. It might seem absurd not to be able to put a number on things, but I kept losing count, the figures were too big and got mixed up in my head.
These days the merchandise unloaded in Naples is almost exclusively Chinese—1.6 million tons annually. Registered merchandise, that is. At least another million tons pass through without leaving a trace. According to the Italian Customs Agency, 60 percent of the goods arriving in Naples escape official customs inspection, 20 percent of the bills of entry go unchecked, and fifty thousand shipments are contraband, 99 percent of them from China—all for an estimated 200 million euros in evaded taxes each semester. The containers that need to disappear before being inspected are in the first row. Every container is duly numbered, but the numbers on many of them are identical. So one inspected container baptizes all the illegal ones with the same number. What gets unloaded on Monday can be for sale in Modena or Genoa or in the shop windows of Bonn or Munich by Thursday. Lots of merchandise on the Italian market is supposedly only in transit, but the magic of customs makes transit stationary. The grammar of merchandise has one syntax for documents and another for commerce. In April 2005, the Antifraud unit of Italian Customs, which had almost by chance launched four separate operations nearly simultaneously, sequestered 24,000 pairs of jeans intended for the French market; 51,000 objects from Bangladesh labelled “Made in Italy”; 450,000 figurines, puppets, Barbies, and Spider-men; and another 46,000 plastic toys—for a total value of approximately 36 million euros. Just a small serving of the economy that was making its way through the port of Naples in a few hours. And from the port to the world. On it goes, all day, every day. These slices of the economy are becoming a staple diet.
The port is detached from the city. An infected appendix, never quite degenerating into peritonitis, always there in the abdomen of the coastline. A desert zone hemmed in by water and earth, but which seems to belong to neither land nor sea. A grounded amphibian, a metamorphosis of the sea. A new formation created from the dirt, garbage, and odds and ends that the tide has carried ashore over the years. Ships empty their latrines and clean their holds, dripping yellow foam into the water; motorboats and yachts, their engines belching, tidy up by tossing everything into the garbage can that is the sea. The soggy mass forms a hard crust all along the coastline. The sun kindles the mirage of water, but the gulf ’s surface gleams like trash bags. Black ones. And the sea here seems percolated, a giant tub of sludge. The wharf with its thousands of multicoloured containers seems an uncrossable border: Naples is encircled by walls of merchandise. But the walls don’t defend the city; on the contrary, it’s the city that defends the walls. Yet there are no armies of longshoremen, no romantic riffraff at the port. One imagines it full of commotion, men coming and going, of scars and incomprehensible languages, a frenzy of people. Instead, the silence of a merchanized factory reigns. There doesn’t seem to be anyone around anymore, and the containers, ships, and trucks seem animated by perpetual motion. A silent swiftness.
* * *
I used to go to the port to eat fish. Not that nearness to the sea means anything in terms of the quality of the restaurant. I’d find pumice stones, sand, even boiled seaweed in my food. The clams were fished up and tossed right into the pan. A guarantee of freshness, a Russian roulette of infection. But these days everyone’s resigned to the taste of farm-raised seafood, so squid tastes like chicken. You have to take risks if you want that indefinable sea flavour. And I willingly ran the risk. In a restaurant at the port, I asked about finding a place to rent.
“I don’t know of anything, the houses around here are disappearing. The Chinese are taking them . . .”
A big guy, but not as big as his voice, was holding court in the centre of the room. He took a look at me and shouted, “There still might be something left!”
That was all he said. After we’d both finished our lunch, we made our way down the street that runs along the port. He didn’t need to tell me to follow him. We came to the atrium of a ghostly apartment house and went up to the fourth floor, to the last remaining student apartment. They were kicking everyone out to make room for emptiness. Nothing was supposed to be left in the apartments. No cabinets, beds, paintings, bedside tables—not even walls. Only space. Space for cartons, space for enormous cardboard wardrobes, space for merchandise.
I was assigned a room of sorts. More of a cubby-hole, just big enough for a bed and a wardrobe. There was no talk of monthly rent, utility bills, or a phone hook-up. He introduced me to four guys, my housemates, and that was that. They explained that this was the only apartment in the building that was still occupied and that it served as lodging for Xian, the Chinese man in charge of “the palazzi,” the buildings. There was no rent to pay, but I was expected to work in the apartment-warehouses on the weekends. I’d gone looking for a room and ended up with a job. In the morning we’d knock down walls, and in the evening we’d clean up the wreckage—chunks of cement and brick—collecting the rubble in ordinary trash bags. Knocking down a wall makes unexpected sounds, not of stones being struck but of crystal being swept off a table onto the floor. Every apartment became a storehouse devoid of walls. I still can’t figure out how the building where I worked remained standing. More than once we knowingly took out main walls. But the space was needed for the merchandise, and there’s no contest between saving walls and storing products.
The idea of cramming apartments full of boxes dawned on some Chinese merchants after the Naples Port Authority presented its security plan to a delegation of U.S. congressmen. The plan provides for the port to be divided into four areas: cruise ships, pleasure craft, commercial vessels, and containers, with an evaluation of the risks in each area. After the security plan was published, many Chinese businessmen decided that the way to keep the police from feeling they had to intervene, the newspapers from writing about it constantly, or TV crews from sneaking around in search of a juicy story was to engulf everything in total silence. A rise in costs was another reason for making the merchandise more inconspicuous. Having it disappear into rented warehouses in remote parts of the countryside, amid landfill and tobacco fields, would have meant a lot of additional tractor-trailer traffic. This way, no more than ten vans, stuffed to the gills with boxes, go in and out of the port daily. Just a short trip and they’re in the garages of the apartment houses facing the port. In and out, that’s all it takes.
Nonexistent, imperceptible movements lost in the everyday traffic. Apartments rented. Gutted. Garage walls removed to make one continuous space. Cellars packed to the ceiling with merchandise. Not one owner dared complain. Xian had paid them all: rent and compensation for unauthorized demolition. Thousands of boxes brought up in the elevator, which was rebuilt to move freight. A steel cage with tracks and a continuously moving platform. The work was concentrated in a few hours, and the choice of merchandise was not accidental. I happened to be unloading during the first days of July. The pay is good, but it’s hard work if you aren’t used to it. It was hot and humid, but no one dared ask about air-conditioning. No one. And not out of fear of punishment or because of cultural norms of obedience and submission. The people unloading came from every corner of the globe: Ghana, Ivory Coast, China, and Albania, as well as Naples, Calabria, and Lucania. No one asked because everyone understood that since merchandise doesn’t suffer from the heat, there was no reason to waste money on air-conditioning.
We stacked boxes of jackets, raincoats, Windbreakers, cotton sweaters, and umbrellas. It seemed a strange choice in the height of summer to be stocking up on fall clothing instead of bathing suits, sundresses, and flip-flops. Unlike the warehouses for stockpiling merchandise, these storage apartments were for items that would be put on the market right away. But the Chinese businessmen had forecast a cloudy August. I’ve never forgotten John Maynard Keynes’s lesson on the concept of marginal value: how, for example, the price of a bottle of water varies depending on whether it is in the desert or near a waterfall. That summer Italian enterprises were offering bottles by the falls while Chinese entrepreneurs were building fountains in the desert.
After my first few days of work, Xian spent the night at the apartment. He spoke perfect Italian, with a soft r that sounded more like a v. Like the impoverished aristocrats Totò imitates in his films. Xian Zhu had been rebaptized Nino. In Naples, nearly all the Chinese who have dealings with locals take Neapolitan names. It’s now such common practice that it’s no longer surprising to hear a Chinese introduce himself as Tonino, Nino, Pino, or Pasquale. Nino Xian didn’t sleep; instead, he spent the night sitting at the kitchen table making phone calls, one eye on the TV. I’d lain down on my bed, but I couldn’t get to sleep. Xian’s voice never let up, his tongue like a machine gun, firing through his teeth. He spoke without inhaling, an asphyxiation of words. His bodyguards’ flatulence saturated the house with a sickly sweet smell and permeated my room as well. It wasn’t just the stench that disgusted me, but the images it evoked. Spring rolls putrefying in their stomachs and Cantonese rice steeped in gastric juices. The other tenants were used to it. Once their doors were closed nothing existed for them but sleep. But for me nothing existed except what was going on outside my door. So I went and sat in the kitchen. Communal space. And therefore also partly mine. At least in theory. Xian stopped talking and started cooking. Fried chicken. All sorts of questions came to mind, things I wanted to ask him, clichés I wanted to peel away. I started talking about the Triad, the Chinese Mafia. Xian kept on frying. I wanted to ask him specifics, even if only symbolic ones—I certainly didn’t expect a confession about his affiliation; presuming that knowing about criminal investigations was the same as knowing the reality, I showed him I was familiar with the Chinese Underworld. Xian put his fried chicken on the table, sat down, and said nothing. I don’t know if he thought what I was saying was interesting. I never did find out if he belonged to the Triad. He took a few sips of beer, then lifted one buttock off his chair, took his wallet out of his pants pocket, flipped through it, and pulled out three bills. He spread them out on the table and placed a glass on top of them.
“Euro, dollar, yuan. Here’s my triad.”
Xian seemed sincere. No other ideology, no symbols or hierarchical passion. Profit, business, capital. Nothing else. One tends to think that the power determining certain dynamics is obscure, and so must issue from an obscure entity: the Chinese Mafia. A synthesis that cancels out all intermediate stages, financial transfers, and investments—everything that makes a criminal economic outfit powerful. For a good five years every Anti-Mafia Commission report has highlighted “the growing danger of the Chinese Mafia,” yet in ten years of investigations the police have sequestered only 600,000 euros in Campi Bisenzio near Florence. A few motorcycles and part of a factory. Nothing compared to the economic force that was moving the hundreds of millions of euros in capital that American analysts kept writing about. Xian the businessman was smiling at me.
“The economy has a top and a bottom. We got in at the bottom and we’re coming out on top.”
Before he went to bed Nino Xian made me a proposal for the following day.
“You get up early?”
“It depends . . .”
“If you can be on your feet at five a.m. tomorrow, come with us to the port. You can give us a hand.”
“If you have a hooded sweatshirt, it’d be a good idea to wear it.”
Nothing more was said. Nor did I insist, eager as I was to take part. Asking too many questions could have compromised Xian’s invitation. There were only a few hours left to rest, but I was too anxious to sleep.
I was ready and waiting downstairs at five on the dot, along with the others: one of my housemates and two North Africans with greying hair. We crammed into the van and headed to the port. I don’t know how far we went once inside the port, or what back alleys we took; I fell asleep, my head against the van window. We got out near some rocks, a small jetty jutting out into the gorge, where a boat with a huge motor—it seemed too heavy a tail for such a long, narrow craft—was moored. With our hoods up we looked like members of some ridiculous rap group. The hood I’d thought was to hide my identity turned out instead to be protection against icy sprays, an attempt to ward off the migraine that nails you in the temples first thing in the morning on the open sea. A young Neapolitan started the motor and another steered. They could have been brothers they looked so much alike. Xian didn’t come with us. After about half an hour we drew up to a ship. I thought we were going to slam right into it. Enormous. I could barely tilt my head back far enough to see the top of the bulwarks. Ships in open water let out iron cries, like felled trees, and hollow sounds that make you swallow constantly, your mucus tasting of salt.
A net filled with boxes dropped jerkily from the ship’s pulley. Every time the bundle knocked against our boat, it pitched so severely that I was sure I would fall in the water. The boxes weren’t that heavy, but after stacking thirty or so in the stern, my wrists were sore and my forearms red from the corners jabbing them. Our boat took off and veered toward the coast just as two others drew up alongside the ship to collect more boxes. They hadn’t left from our jetty, but all of a sudden there they were in our wake. I felt it in the pit of my stomach every time the bow slapped the surface of the water. I rested my head against the boxes and tried to guess their contents from their smell, placed my ear against them and tried to make out what was inside from the sound. A sense of guilt crept over me. Who knows what I’d taken part in, without making a decision, without really choosing. It was one thing to damn myself intentionally, but instead I’d ended up unloading clandestine goods out of curiosity. For some reason one stupidly thinks a criminal act has to be more thought out, more deliberate than an innocuous one. But there’s really no difference. Gestures know an elasticity that ethical judgments ignore. When we got back to the jetty, the North Africans climbed out of the boat with two cartons each on their shoulders, but I had a hard enough time standing without wobbling. Xian was waiting for us on the rocks. He selected a huge carton and sliced the packing tape with a box cutter. Sneakers. Genuine athletic shoes, the most famous brands, the latest models, so new they weren’t yet for sale in Italy. Fearing a Customs inspection, Xian preferred unloading them on the open sea. That way the merchandise could be put on the market without the burden of taxes, and the wholesalers wouldn’t have to pay import fees. You beat the competition on price. Same merchandise quality, but at a 4, 6, 10 percent discount. Percentages no sales rep could offer, and percentages are what make or break a store, give birth to new shopping centres, bring in guaranteed earnings and, with them, secure bank loans. Prices have to be lower. Everything has to move quickly and secretly, squeezed into buying and selling. Unexpected oxygen for Italian and European merchants. Oxygen that enters through the port of Naples.
We loaded the boxes into vans as other boats docked. The vans headed toward Rome, Viterbo, Latina, Formia. Xian had us driven home.
Everything had changed in the last few years. Everything. Suddenly and unexpectedly. Some people sense the change without understanding it. Up till ten years ago, bootleggers’ boats plowed the Bay of Naples every morning, carrying dealers out to stock up on cigarettes. The streets were packed, cars were filled with cartons to be sold at corner stalls. The battles were played out among the Coast Guard, Customs, and the smugglers. Tons of cigarettes in exchanged for a botched arrest, or an arrest in exchange for tons of cigarettes stashed in the false bottom of a fleeing motorboat. Long nights, lookouts, whistles warning of a suspicious car, walkie-talkies ready to sound the alarm, lines of men quickly passing boxes along the shore. Cars speeding inland from the Puglia coast, or from the hinterlands to Campania. The crucial axis ran between Naples and Brindisi, the route of cheap cigarettes. Bootlegging was a booming business, the Fiat of the south, the welfare system for those the government ignored, the sole activity of twenty thousand people in Puglia and Campania. It was also what triggered the great Camorra war of the early 1980s.
The Puglia and Campania clans were smuggling cigarettes into Europe to get around government taxes. They imported thousands of crates from Montenegro every month, invoicing 500 million lire—roughly $330,000—on each shipment. Now all that has broken up and changed. It’s no longer worth it for the clans to deal in contraband cigarettes. But Antoine Lavoisier’s maxim holds true: nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed. In nature, but above all in the dynamics of capitalism. Consumer goods have replaced the nicotine habit as the new contraband. A cutthroat price war is developing, as discounts mean the difference between life and death for agents, wholesalers, and merchants. Taxes, VAT, and tractor-trailer maximums are the deadwood of profit, the real obstacles hindering the circulation of merchandise and money. To take advantage of cheap labour, the big companies are shifting production to the east, to Romania or Moldavia, or even farther—to China. But that’s not enough. The merchandise is cheaply produced, but it enters a market where more and more consumers with unstable incomes or minimal savings keep track of every cent. As unsold merchandise piles up, new items—genuine, false, semi-false, or partly real—arrive. Silently, without a trace. With less visibility than cigarettes, since there’s no illegal distribution. As if they’d never been shipped, as if they’d sprouted in the fields and been harvested by some unknown hand. Money doesn’t stink, but merchandise smells sweet. It doesn’t give off the odour of the sea it crossed or the hands that produced it, however. No grease stains from the machinery that assembled it. Merchandise smells of what it knows. Its odour comes from the shopkeeper’s counter, its only destination is the buyer’s home.
We left the sea behind and headed home. The van barely gave us time to get out before it returned to the port to collect more cartons, more merchandise. I nearly fainted getting into the elevator. I took off my sweatshirt, soaked with sea and sweat, and threw myself on my bed. I don’t know how many boxes I’d carried and stacked, but I felt as if I’d unloaded shoes for half of the feet of Italy. I was exhausted, as if it were the end of a long, hard day. My apartment mates were just waking up. It was still early morning.
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