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Beauty and the Inferno, By Roberto Saviano

An offer one cannot refuse

'He who writes, dies." So declares Roberto Saviano while paying tribute to the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Saviano has himself been the object of a death sentence issued by the Neapolitan Camorra, whose activities he exposed in his best-selling Gomorrah, published five years ago. His new book, Beauty and the Inferno, is a collection of essays that he has published in journals and newspapers since then. And although the subjects range widely, he returns often to the themes that dominate his thinking: the purpose of writing and the need to take a stand.

As the title of this collection suggests, Saviano is interested in extremes. He writes admiring profiles of the footballer Lionel Messi and the jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani, both of whom suffered in childhood from growth deficiency problems that they overcame to become masters of their art. But he also writes of mafia killers and their bosses, and the innocent victims of shoddily built dormitories and illegal, carcinogenic dumping grounds.

Saviano is drawn to Salman Rushdie, whom he encounters at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. Rushdie, who lived for 10 years under the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, cautions Saviano to "continue to have faith in words, to go beyond condemnation, go beyond threats". Which is what Saviano does. The experience of writing Gomorrah and its aftermath has made of him a man determined to describe the world exactly as he finds it, and in words calculated to rouse the passion of his readers. Why, Saviano is asked in Sweden, does the mafia hate him so? He replies that by combining imagination with reporting, literature "speaks directly to the reader, it invades his space".

Saviano reflects a great deal on his audience, as it is his intention to move his millions of readers to action. He urges them to join together to resist all those who would keep them isolated and in fear. Like the greatest of Italian writers, Dante Alighieri, he is above all a moralist who despises those who take no sides in the great struggles of our time.

Saviano has consciously developed a spare, precise language "allowing no polemics, sentimentality or simplifications". In this book, whatever his subject – be it the workings of the mafia; the courage of those who oppose them; the artistry of filmmakers, singers, sportsmen; the accomplishments of imaginative novelists and dedicated journalists – he uses that hard-won style to his and our advantage.

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