MacLehose Press, £17.99, 273pp. £16.19 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Beauty and the Inferno by Roberto Saviano, trans. Oonagh Stransky

Success is a terrible disaster," wrote Malcolm Lowry after the acclaim that greeted Under the Volcano. Roberto Saviano felt the full force of that insight when the triumph of his first book, Gomorrah, a hallucinatory exploration of the world of the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia, led to plausible death threats from gangsters he had exposed, and an indefinite sentence to life under escort.

Gomorrah has sold two million copies in Italy and four million around the world, and was turned into a brilliant, award-winning film. Saviano invented a new way of writing about organised crime and the tragedy of the Italian south, but the threats to his life mean that a sequel is out of the question. He was present on the sidelines in Gomorrah, a precocious, elf-like figure barely out of his teens, half inside the gang's world and half out, hanging around the crime scenes and watching everything.

Now he can never do that again unless he succeeds in losing his bodyguards and takes an insane gamble. So he has to write what he can, in the new circumstances. Beauty and the Inferno, a selection of essays written between 2004 – two years before Gomorrah's publication – and 2009, is the result. He starts off on entirely the wrong foot with a preface that is a collection of whines and wails: the pain of constantly changing apartments, the endless hotel rooms, the Carabinieri barracks, the fact that he cannot go for a walk, not even with bodyguards.

Cyberspace is as close as he can get to the great outdoors, and the information superhighway as close to the mean streets of Caserta. But even there he's not protected from the abuse of idiotic co-nationals who resent his fame and wealth.

Luckily, he hasn't just been skulking around feeling sorry for himself; and while the threats slammed the door to one reality, fame and acclaim threw open new ones. These days Saviano can rub shoulders with practically anyone he fancies. He meets the tiny Argentinian football genius Lionel Messi and writes with moving empathy about his struggle to grow. He meets two Neapolitan boxing champions and mulls the paradox of how in Naples boxing is a way to stay out of the mob's clutches. "Once you've fought with your own hands, drenched in your own sweat," he observes, "signing up with the mob seems like a kind of defeat."

In one of the strongest essays, he writes of meeting Joe Pistone, an Italian-American who for years, under the name of Donnie Brasco, worked as an undercover agent inside the Bonanno Mafia gang.

That led to the arrest of some 150 Bonanno clan members, and the gang putting a bounty of $150,000 on Pistone's head. "During the killers' trials, many of his one-time friends mimed shooting a gun at him," he writes. "I manage to say that his courage amazes me. 'I was never entirely afraid,' [Joe tells him]. 'If you are afraid they see it in your face. I couldn't be afraid, because I knew that if I made a mistake I could die, and fear makes you make mistakes.'" Like Saviano, Pistone paid for his intimacy with the mob by having his life turned inside out, his family forced to adopt new identities.

He relishes the warm solidarity offered him by Salman Rushdie. "Continue to have faith in words," Rushdie tells him. "They will blame you for not having died. Do not listen to them. Live and write. Words will triumph." And he contemplates the career of Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead by an assassin on her doorstep – and how her terrible death proved the importance of her work. "The truth of language... is paid for with one's life... They killed [Anna], but not her words – because the proof that you've struck power in the heart is to be shot in the heart." As Rushdie puts it, "Do you have any idea how much you bother these people?"

These are consolations for a man living the strange life to which Saviano has been doomed. But running through this collection like a seam of poison is despair at the way Italy has made its peace with the criminality he exposed. "All you want is a normal life... Yet there's a war going on around you and those who fight back lose everything. How did we get so blind? So servile, resigned, bowed down?"

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

Voices
The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
    Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

    Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

    David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
    Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

    Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

    A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
    10 best DSLRs

    Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

    Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash