If you’ve ever spoken to outsiders about Naples, the chances are they fell into one of two camps. There are those who celebrate it for its food and being a beautiful and authentic Italian city granting travellers a genuine adventure. And there are those who advise against going because they’ve heard it’s a dangerous, ugly place, populated by mafia and rife with crime. These divided opinions are in truth aligned with the ambivalence towards Naples the city inspires in its own natives and inhabitants. Marius Kociejowski’s new book The Serpent Coiled in Naples is the perfect read for those who wonder why Naples is so full of ambiguity and contradiction.
“Never fear Rome, the serpent lies coiled in Naples.” With this proverb in mind, Kociejowski travelled to the city, having set himself the ambitious task of demystifying its labyrinthine soul – of locating, as he says, the metaphorical head of the serpent.
Reading his book feels like accompanying him on that journey. At one point, he recounts hearing boisterous exchanges throughout the night from his accommodation and thinking that the distant, indecipherable tongues conceal profound treasures from him. The Serpent Coiled in Naples aims to unearth some of these gems; it is not so much a travel guide as a work that reveals the truth of how we travel to and learn about destinations of which we have already formed impressions before arriving.
Kociejowski, who used to work as an antiquarian bookseller in London, is endlessly curious about what lies beneath the surface, ranging from the story of a musical instrumentto that of a local idiom. Indeed, a large part of the book’s charm lies in its eclecticism. In addition to tales of Giacomo Girolamo Casanova’s sexual escapades and the prudishness, conversely, of Cosimo de’ Medici, Kociejowski writes about lesser-known Neapolitans. His conversation with the morbid writer Carmen Pellegrino, whose metaphysical beliefs inform her own perspective of Naples and motivate her to attend strangers’ funerals, is just one of many enthralling dialogues recounted here.
Naples is a city in which nocturnal revelries are yards away from silent streets; brutal Nazi occupiers and the mafia-like Camorra have coexisted with art, music and religious conviction; rituals take place reconciling pagan animism with Catholic worship; and Neapolitans fear their notably enduring culture teeters on the brink of being lost forever.
The musicality of the prose enhances the reader’s sense of exploring an enchanting place, and Kociejowski is expert at illuminating the connections between the personal and the political as seamlessly as great writers of fiction often do.
In short, this book contains a city and a world.
The Serpent Coiled in Naples by Marius Kociejowski; £20, Haus Publishing
By Nicholas Ross. Nick is a traveller, writer and lover of literature