When the Camorra mobsters of Naples sentenced Roberto Saviano to death in 2007, the author of Gomorrah unwillingly joined a very exclusive club. To write, and speak, the truth as you see it will always carry risks, on a sliding scale from nuisance to ordeal.
In the past week, in India alone, populist hooligans of the Shiv Sena party have burned Rohinton Mistry's novel Such a Long Journey, while – utterly shamefully – the vice-chancellor of the University of Mumbai capitulated to the thugs' demands to remove the book from his library. Days later, Arundhati Roy learned that she might face charges under the archaic Raj-era laws of "sedition" for daring to agree with countless Kashmiris that their beautiful, tormented land may not always belong to India.
But the club into which the crime clans of Naples thrust Saviano after his excoriating exposé of their grip on his home city and region has formerly had just one celebrated member. As it happens, he is a Bombay novelist of Kashmiri heritage. Saviano got to know Salman Rushdie after the gangsters' fatwa, Neapolitan style, had also condemned him to a clandestine half-life of constant moves from secret flat to secret flat, with only his armed bodyguards – assigned by Italy's interior ministry - for regular company. As he wrote last year, "my home has been a holdall with socks, boxers, T-shirts and trousers, a jacket and some shirts. Plus a bag with medicines, toothpaste, toothbrush and a mobile phone charger; another full of books and papers and my computer. That's it."
While Gomorrah sold four million copies and turned into a lauded film, Saviano endured this "crap life", pining in the ever-changing shadows. Rushdie stood with him as a Virgil-like guide through this bizarre underworld: "Ever since our first meeting he had always given me basic advice on how to face my own situation". For instance, when Saviano found his access to a flight blocked after passengers had recognised him, he took up Rushdie's recommendation and called the largest local newspaper. Within minutes, he was on board: "Fear of the media had overcome fear of association with me."
Beyond all doubt, the Camorra – by all accounts, the Casalesi clan specifically – plan to eliminate Saviano, just as the Iranians did with Rushdie. When the latter publishes his fatwa memoir in 2012, sceptics may grasp the true depth of the danger. Rushdie, as a UK citizen, enjoyed the full protective resources of the British government. Now Saviano's UK publisher, MacLehose Press, wants to bring him here early next year to launch his collection of essays, Beauty and the Inferno. But a serious obstable remains.
The Home Office, for obvious reasons, refuses to allow armed foreign bodyguards on British soil. So, unless British police agree to do the job (and they have not yet done so), this prime target may court graver risks in London than he would do in Naples. Part of the problem seems to stem from the unofficial nature of Italian clan crime. To which the long-suffering people of Calabria – or Sicily – might ruefully answer that they yearn for a local state as organised and efficient as the mobster networks.
Saviano is not only a reporter of awe-inspiring courage but a writer of blazing skill. We deserve the chance to hear him. Otherwise the hoodlums win. In Rushdie's case, his guardians - even at the peak of the fatwa menace - found ways of spiriting him in and out of venues so that he retained a public profile, and a public voice. If the British government will not allow Saviano to import his Italian official protection, they should supply the equivalent themselves. After all, this is no domestic Italian quarrel. A chilling section of Gomorrah shows how one Camorra family has put down roots in - Aberdeen.
Saviano has said that he dreads not death but infamy. The criminals, he fears, will "manage to defame me, to destroy my credibility, to blacken my name". And they have form. His protected presence here would help to shield his light against their darkness. He should come.
Global views of a prize for Asia
Banned and burned in Bombay, Rohinton Mistry found backing in London when the shortlist for the first DSC Prize for South Asian Literature was celebrated at Shakespeare's Globe. Hosts Hardeep Singh Kohli and Nikki Bedi raised a cheer for the novelist while naming contenders for the new $50,000 award. DSC, already sponsor of the Jaipur literature festival and last week's inaugural South Asian Literature Festival in London, has founded a prize for fiction "pertaining to the South Asian region", whatever the author's origin. Novels by HM Naqvi, Neel Mukherjee, Manju Kapur, Tania James, Musharraf Ali Farooqui and Amit Chaudhuri all feature on the first shortlist.
Tom, Bert and a change of heart
Fifty years ago next Tuesday, Britain changed when – after a short three hours on 2 November 1960 – the jury in the case of Regina v. Penguin Books Ltd found the publisher of Lady Chatterley's Lover not guilty under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. Since Philip Larkin's "end of the Chatterley ban", scores of books, articles, TV dramas and other reconstructions have revisited the words of the 35 expert witnesses called by Penguin.
They stood up (literally) for DH Lawrence's novel and politely, even genteelly, tore to shreds the prosecution case. We know well enough what EM Forster, C Day Lewis, John Robinson, Richard Hoggart, Helen Gardner et al said for the defence. But what of Penguin's reserve witnesses, who never took the stand? Most enigmatic of DHL supporters on the bench was TS Eliot. After all, the prosecution had hoped that the great Christian, conservative poet would come out for them. His change of sides remains a deeply intriguing topic – and a rich subject for a dramatist, maybe?Reuse content