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?"

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