Roberto Saviano interview: 'Gomorrah' author on how writing a mould-breaking book on organised crime cost him his freedom

Gomorrah changed everything for the Italian journalist, for good and bad

James Hanning
Saturday 04 July 2015 21:30 BST
The TV adaptation of 'Gomorrah'
The TV adaptation of 'Gomorrah'

When I tell some Italian friends I am going to interview Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, the mould-breaking book on Naples’ notorious Camorra crime syndicate that has meant he is now guarded round-the-clock, I mention that I plan to ask him how he gets by, how he copes with having to plan every aspect of his life to the finest detail, only going outdoors with a squad of carabinieri to protect him from vengeful camorristi. In short, how does he live?

“He lives well,” my friends tell me knowingly. And here is part of the Saviano paradox. As a journalist, he has showed extraordinary defiance and courage in speaking out about some of the more bestial of his fellow Neapolitans. Gomorrah sold 10 million copies around the world after it appeared in 2006, becoming, surely, one of television’s most compelling series ever. It gave him, at just 25, the sort of profile and financial security beyond the dreams of most journos, but also death threats, the need for his family to effectively disappear and scant prospect of anything but the briefest of romantic liaisons. And now, evidently unfulfilled by crossing swords with some of Italy’s most unpleasant people, he has gone global with Zero Zero Zero, a book about the international cocaine trade.

“My mother always told me I was a bit of a one for getting into fixes, a bit dumb, restless and impulsive,” he admits when we meet in a chic London hotel. This time he is travelling light, seemingly with just one heavy. When he travels to Mexico, he has 10, in Italy, seven. He has twice asked the Italian authorities if it might be safe to lift the guard, but they say no. It has become a symbol of the Italian state’s willingness to take on organised crime, so in any case is unlikely to be dropped.

The son of a geochemist mother and a GP father, Saviano was brought up in Casal di Principe, on the outskirts of Naples, in a golden age of organised crime killing. He saw his first corpse at the age of 12 (“I remember it didn’t bother me … I felt grown up when I saw bodies”), but the rage was fired at the age of 16 when the local priest, Don Peppe Diana, pinned a notice on local churches bearing the words: “Because I love my people, I must stay quiet no longer.” Days later, he was shot in the face in his own church. Bad enough, but the local papers proceeded to smear the man, claiming the “playboy priest” was a camorrista himself, had been caught in bed with two women and so on. People seemed indifferent, says Saviano, still scandalised, so he started writing, his guiding principle – apart from his own ambition, he admits – being “this is why this story is important for you”.

A degree of early success led him to Gomorrah, the book that changed everything, for good and bad. “I know the heroic answer is to say I would write the same book again, but I wouldn’t, or at least not in the same way.” A life of confinement, of having to plan everything at least three days in advance, as he has for nine years, is weighing on him. He has spent extended periods in the United States, Sweden, Rome and the idyllic tiny island of Filicudi, at a time when there were countless Camorra hitmen on the loose. He has had trouble sleeping, suffers from agoraphobia, can only with the greatest difficulty, say, go out for a pizza, and feels a permanent tension inside himself, compounded by what he has inflicted on his family. His mother and brother moved away from his home area. “They are sweet and don’t go on about it,” he says, “but this is my great guilt. For me, it is a job, but they have to live it, the danger, the jokes ....”

Intriguingly, he talks of how Salman Rushdie and other international fugitives (such as Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho and Iranian women’s rights campaigner Shirin Ebadi) call one another to ask for and offer advice about safe places to go and how to cope. Rushdie told him some supporters won’t be happy till he’s dead. “He said they love you because you are a martyr, but if you don’t die, it’s as if you are betraying them. He also said that you free yourself from the inside, by getting rid of guilt … and then he said there is one thing you must do to win – you must party!” That will have to wait. He remains a long way short of self-pity, and talks of the absurdity of feeling, as he did initially, that somehow the world owed him. “I’m very privileged,” he says, acknowledging he is a prisoner also of his topic, but that many have been killed and imprisoned for their work “and I’m still here!”.

Writing Zero Zero Zero, which, amid the encyclopedia of human tales contains numerous episodes of appalling cold-bloodedness from around the world, seems to reflect the bug he can’t shake. “It’s as if I’m saying ‘here I am, you haven’t beaten me’.” And off he goes, talking with compelling urgency about what a great drug cocaine is for criminals (he has never tried it). “If I gave you a bag of diamonds, it would be almost impossible for you to sell it,” he says excitedly. “But if I gave you a bag of cocaine, you could probably sell the contents before you leave this hotel.”

So, about those critics. Tall poppy syndrome is alive and well in Italy. Saviano achieved the status of a near-saint for standing up to the Camorra, and initially he was a sacred cow, uncriticised and unchallenged, a phase now behind him, but his adoring public survives. He is often used to provide credibility to some of Italy’s less demanding shows, yet in general he does raise standards. One television presenter puts it like this: “If a programme has a mass audience, does that mean it is an audience of cretins? Saviano, when he was on, did what an intelligent person can do: he spoke to everyone.” Critics say his journalism has had too much help from the police and magistrates, that he is not a real intellectual, that he is a mere teller of stories, light on analysis, that he has besmirched the name of Naples, that he has sold out.

Is this snobbery, I ask? “Yes. They can’t bear me being popular,” he says. “Besides, I like being a bit of a contrarian. The extreme left hate me, the Berlusconiani hate me … I manage to reach a lot of people, which is bellissimo. It is true something has changed, but I went on TV and talked about Dostoyevsky and the viewing figures went crazy. It’s not easy to retain both authority and popularity, but I’m trying.” And as for his fellow Neapolitans, he says many are guilty of the victimism of which their northern neighbours accuse them. He says it is absurd to criticise those who shoot the messenger, rather than the criminals responsible for – when Saviano was growing up – around 500 murders a year.

So, with a second and third series of Gomorrah on the way and a TV adaptation of Zero Zero Zero on the horizon, Saviano ain’t backing down. He says he wants to become anonymous, as he currently is in the US, yet he is promoting a book about the global drugs trade. Fatally (and we must dearly hope not literally), he can’t help giving a damn, and on Wednesday last week he spent an evening exorting a not obviously radical but adoring Intelligence Squared audience to lobby the UK government about money laundering. He has been assailed by requests to go into politics, which he refuses (“I just don’t think it is my trade”), although – normally soft-eyed and friendly – his look darkens when he talks about the future of Italian politics. He is visibly anxious to find a solution to his imprisonment, and admits he dreams unrealistically of going to, say, Australia and maybe teaching. But you sense even if that country did offer sanctuary, this most Olympian, unquiet of souls would soon be looking for an itch to scratch.

Curriculum Vitae

The TV adaptation of 'Gomorrah'

Roberto Saviano was born in Naples in 1979. His international bestseller, Gomorrah, has sold more than 10 million copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

The film of Gomorrah won the Grand Prix at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It has also been adapted into a television crime drama. Saviano’s journalism has been widely published in Europe and the US.

Saviano has been under police protection since October 2006, after threats from organised crime. In 2008, six Nobel prize-winning authors and intellectuals made a statement of support for Saviano, and that November he was invited by the Nobel committee in Stockholm to give a lecture on “Freedom of Speech and Lawless Violence”.

In 2010, his television series Vieni via con me (Come Away With Me), achieved Italian station Rai 3’s biggest audience since its creation in 1979. His latest book, Zero Zero Zero, is about the cocaine trade.

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