I Am a Symbol, Not a Hero
Roberto Saviano, author of the international bestseller Gomorrah, was awarded the European Book Prize (non-fiction category) towards the end of last year for his collection of essays and articles La bellezza e l’inferno, which MacLehose Press will publish as Beauty and the Inferno later this year.
Gomorrah, which has sold some two million copies in Italy alone – and been adapted for the big screen – graphically exposed the workings of the Camorra, a powerful Neapolitan mafia family. The book’s extraordinary success made Saviano a marked man: as he said himself at the European Parliament in December, the mafia do not fear him, but they do fear the millions who read his writings – they do not want the truth to be brought to light through literature.
With Beauty and the Inferno, Saviano continues his anti-Mafia crusade. Individually, the articles reveal the remarkable depth and breadth of Saviano’s interests: Leo Messi, Frank Miller and Anna Politkovskaya are all honoured here for their courage and inspiration in the face of adversity by a writer who can recognize and articulate the beauty in any art form.
Taken as a whole, the book is another crucial and searing polemic aimed against the Mafia families who keep the cocaine flowing freely, poison the land and the people with illegal dumping, and eliminate anyone who would get in their way. Saviano’s heroes exemplify the courage that all Italians – all Europeans – will need to display if we are ever to extricate ourself from the influence of organized crime.
The following was conducted on the day of the award ceremony in Brussels by Christophe Berti and Thierry Fiorilli for Belgian daily Le Soir, and is reprinted here by kind permission, translated from the French by Nelly Hermitant.
LE SOIR: You have been awarded a European Prize and been invited to the European Parliament. Is this an important symbol for you?
ROBERTO SAVIANO: Of course. I no longer believe that I am simply addressing an Italian audience. When you deal with the Mafia, you cannot limit your investigations to a single country. We need, at a European level, the means and jurisprudence to fight the Mafia, but at the moment these do not exist. In this respect, you have to give credit to Italy for being responsible, single-handedly, for most of all anti-Mafia operations. I am not saying that elsewhere other police forces are not efficient, but they see the problem with the Mafia as, intrinsically, an Italian one, whereas on the contrary we need to understand that the Mafia is an international organisation.
LE SOIR: You mentioned your work. What is it exactly?
ROBERTO SAVIANO: My job is to write. I am neither a criminologist nor a “mafiologist”, I am a writer.
LE SOIR: But also a journalist, a television personality and, nowadays, a public figure whose opinion matters in Italy.
ROBERTO SAVIANO: I must stress that I am a writer. A writer who uses all means at his disposal to reach the largest audience. When I am on television, or when I write for a newspaper, I am still a narrator. The main difference between my work and that of others who work for television is that when I speak about the Mafia, I do not simply speak about investigations and judicial facts, but I tell a story. I pay attention to the style before adding details, contradictions etc. You may not like this approach and find it too literary, but that is my strength.
LE SOIR: Italy is often vilified but when Benigni reads Dante on television, it is an instant hit. Similarly when you speak about the Mafia. Don’t you think it is rather reassuring?
ROBERTO SAVIANO: Indeed, there is more to Italian television than trash. Besides, I am pleased that I did not do this to be openly provocative on live television or to try to increase the ratings. I wanted to widen the debate and make people think while remaining as objective as possible. If you, on Belgian television explained where the cocaine which finds its way up Brussels’ nostrils came from and how it is controlled from A to Z by the Mafia, Belgian people would have a rude awakening the following morning..
LE SOIR: Has Italy woken up yet?
ROBERTO SAVIANO: Italy is in a bizarre situation. On the one hand, we know how powerful the Mafia is and how important it is to fight it. On the other hand, some say we have to live with it and nothing can be done about it. This has been the position adopted by the Left for a long time, now it is also that of the right-wing government: a few arrests, but not much prominence is given to the problem. I personally think that talking about it, explaining, analysing it leads to a better understanding. Therefore a better way of fighting it. Repression does not stop the Mafia, it just re-emerges differently. If a Mafioso debt collector is arrested, he is out of the game, but the system carries on. Unless it is followed by a proper media blitz.
LE SOIR: Hence the power of the word. Is your achievement the triumph of the story over silence?
LE SAVIANO: I am very fond of a Catalan proverb: “Following a flood, the first thing lacking is water.” Drinking water. This is exactly what is happening with information. We get lots of information but hardly any that is ”drinkable”. Let me give you an example. If I hail a taxi driver in Brussels, a Flemish one. Everyone is Flemish here, are they not?
LE SOIR: No, but it would take too long to explain. Carry on . . .
ROBERTO SAVIANO: So, a taxi driver. If I ask him if he is aware that an entire section of his city has been bought with narcos’ money some time ago. He would not know, not because of censorship, but because this kind of information gets lost in the larger flow of news, and life goes on. That is the Mafia’s strength: things move fast and are quickly forgotten. The Mafia knows it only too well. My role is to stop that haemorrhage, to focus on a precise theme, to highlight it. I tried this . . . and I succeeded!
LE SOIR: You talk about the Mafia, but also about women’s emancipation, euthanasia, poverty and so on. This is all very political. Are you going to get involved in politics?
ROBERTO SAVIANO: Politics is not my job. Besides, in Italy, the political scene is very complicated, the more so since there is a particular Italian characteristic: the habit to discredit. Many people hesitate to enter politics for fear of being discredited in a dishonourable way.
LE SOIR: Is there no hope?
ROBERTO SAVIANO: Yes, there is, but the political world must change. And in order for this to happen, the voters must break free from the old politics. It is not simply a question of voting for the left, but to seek out something new and different in politics, beginning with honesty.
LE SOIR: Italy seems to be heading towards new elections. Who are you going to vote for?
ROBERTO SAVIANO: [Laughter] I will vote, for sure, but I do not know for whom yet. Not for Berlusconi, that is certain. At the moment, there is the left, the right, the centre and . . . Berlusconi, a maverick, as always. Personally, I think that Berlusconi’s era is over. All the better, but I do not know what will come next. In reality, his government has already fallen. If it has not yet happened officially that is for fear of vengeance. There are files on everyone. Let me say it again, it is because of this very specific system that a large number of “good” people have not entered politics. It is unfortunate, but at the same time, it has provided a platform for intellectuals. Much more so than in other countries. I am not naïve: if eleven million people follow my monologues on television it is because they do not want or no longer want to listen to politicians.
LE SOIR: Let’s talk about you. Since your wrote Gomorrah, 5 years ago, you live under police protection, your life is that of a man under a death sentence. How do you cope with it?
ROBERTO SAVIANO: To start with, you think you are going to get used to it. But the fact is, you never do. You are aware that Italy has the highest number of people under protection in the world after Colombia.
On the one hand this is good because that type of protection has probably saved many lives, but on the other, at a personal level, it is a difficult situation. One lives in a state of total and permanent neurosis. At the beginning, I would move house very often. When waking up, at times, I did not know where I was, where the bathroom was etc. and you live under two enormous, gigantic, inhuman pressures. First of all, the daily and permanent living of your life with bodyguards and people surrounding you. Then that of anti-Mafia security advisers who tell you to be constantly on your guard, not to go out and provide you with seven bodyguards 24/7.
LE SOIR: A man is also defined by where he lives: do you have a home?
ROBERTO SAVIANO: [Silence] Now, let’s say that I manage to live between one house and another.
LE SOIR: Have you got any friends?
ROBERTO SAVIANO: Not in the normal sense of the term. Since Gomorrah, I have lost all my old friends. And then there is this permanent distrust. I do not trust anybody. No one. I do not believe that everyone I meet wants to kill me, but everything I do becomes news. I live with rumours about me that do not match reality. In this vicious circle, I become even more suspicious.
LE SOIR: At 31, one gets the impression that you are condemned to be a hero.
ROBERTO SAVIANO: It is a nice way of putting it, but I do not feel like a hero. I am condemned to live permanently in a situation that is totally controlled. And condemned to be a symbol.
LE SOIR: But being a symbol is equally powerful.
ROBERTO SAVIANO: That is true but one, must be clear about what power means. I do not have any political project, or any strategic plan. I am telling stories and trying to make people think, full stop. Besides, being a symbol is really hard. A symbol cannot afford to make any mistake and then a symbol . . . dies. A symbol that survives is a fake in the eyes of most people. I have learned this from Salman Rushdie. We were together in Stockholm at the Swedish Academy and from the podium, he looked at me and said: “Be aware, seven years after the fatwa against me, people started telling me: was all that just a publicity stunt? In Italy, I already see this mentioned publicly: If you are not dead yet, it means that that was all a lot of hot air. When I hear this, I am hurt and it reminds me of what Judge Falcone (killed by the Mafia) once said. He had escaped a first assassination attempt and it was held against him. He said: “Italy is a happy country where to be credible one must die”. You know, my story is already written. And besides, I am lucky: I am still alive and can speak to millions of people, which is not the case for the majority of those who live under security protection. But my story is already written.
LE SOIR: Do you have any plans?
ROBERTO SAVIANO: Yes, I am going to leave Italy for a while, write other books. And hope this economic crisis disappears so my country finds enough courage to change its frame of mind.
LE SOIR: You are sporting a ring on your left forefinger. Why?
ROBERTO SAVIANO: It is a Jewish ring (I am Jewish). In the Zohar, there is a saying: the wise man locks fear in a room, but the idiot opens the door and lets it out. Get fear out of your head and it will disappear.
Translated from the French by Nelly Hermitant 16.12.2010.