It was Friday October 13, 2006, when Roberto Saviano’s life took a brutal turn. The Italian journalist was on a train from Pordenone to Naples when his mobile phone rang. It was the military police. The Carabinieri had intercepted messages from incarcerated Mafiosi. The Camorra bosses wanted Saviano dead.
A detachment of security forces was already waiting for him as his train drew into the station.The 35-year-old has lived ever since with 10 bodyguards who take turns to watch over him. Like him, his parents and brother have had to leave their homes and go into hiding. And like him, they’ve lived under police protection for eight years.
What sparked all this subterfuge was the fact that Saviano had become too dangerous for the Mafia’s liking.
His best-selling book Gomorrah was published in 2006. It was an exposé of the Neapolitan Camorra and was more revealing than any Mafia book before it.
Initially, the Mafiosi felt flattered and gave each other copies of the book. But it all changed when Gomorrah had an Italian print run of 100,000 copies, and there were plans for foreign translations. That was far too much attention for the Camorra bosses, some of whom were mentioned by name.
The book has now been published in 43 countries. The film of the same name won awards in 2008 at Cannes, the European Film Awards and elsewhere. Now there’s a TV series, also called Gomorrah, which portrays the power struggles within a Neapolitan clan, and is being hailed as Europe’s answer to The Wire. In Italy it’s been a ratings success and is set to be broadcast in 50 countries.
The international launch of the TV series is why Saviano has come out of hiding and made himself available for an interview. But only after a couple of false starts. First there was talk of a meeting in Rome. Then he wanted to answer the questions in writing. Then, out of the blue, there was an email from the a press department. He would be in Munich a few days later.
But what could be expected of this sort of interview? When Saviano appeared at a journalism festival in Perugia last year, every visitor was frisked for weapons and the venue had to be checked for bombs. Personal details have been hard to come by when anyone has interviewed him in recent years. Information about his family remains vague. Some say it was just his mother and brother who had to move home and adopt new identities. Others talk of an aunt. No one mentions his father. His love life doesn’t come up.
The natural journalistic reflex would be to probe. But would he give answers? And if he did, should a piece of journalism really give clues to his potential killers?
Even the setting in which the interview takes place has something of the surreal about it. Downtown Munich is partially sealed off – for nothing more suspicious than a fun run. The corridors of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof where Saviano is staying are empty, but standing in the corridor leading to the suite where the interview will take place are two men in dark suits with the unmistakeable oversized physique of bodyguards.
As for the focus of everyone’s attention, Saviano doesn’t come across as someone whose life might end at any second. He has a focused gaze, a look of gentle relaxation on his face, his movements are deliberate, his voice calm.
But appearances can be deceptive.
“I feel like I’ve been shot to pieces inside,” Saviano says, opening the conversation, the calm expression on his face unchanged. “I work out a lot. That helps. But I miss my familiar surroundings, my book collection. I’m always waking up in strange houses.” He mentions insomnia, but would rather that wasn’t printed. “For the last six months I’ve been abroad. The distance has helped me find a bit of inner peace again.”
Considering the light Saviano’s shone on what is traditionally an underground world, a first question to him must be: does he see himself as a hero?
“You don’t automatically feel solidarity when you fight against organised crime,” he says. “Some people think of you as a traitor.”
Criticised by Cannavaro and Berlusconi
Saviano has indeed been publicly criticised for his work, by footballer Fabio Cannavaro for one. The long-time captain of the Italian national team said that Gomorrah would create a false picture of the city of Naples. Disgraced former president Silvio Berlusconi though that Saviano was giving free publicity to the Mafia and painting Italy in a bad light.
Notwithstanding, Saviano is a national hero in his homeland, with fame that extends beyond his books. When the writer co-hosted a four-part TV series in November 2010 that dealt very critically with the state of the Italian nation, a peak of 11.4 million viewers tuned in.
Internationally he has long been seen as a crusader, a symbol of the fight against organised crime. He has given secret guest lectures in New York and has warned other nations against playing down the threat posed by the Mafia. He continues to work undeterred. His latest book, ZeroZeroZero, published in 2013, is about the global cocaine trade.
“I’m obsessed with the Mafia,” he says. “I have this feeling that I’m useless if I don’t devote myself to such matters. I want to show readers a world they can’t imagine and yet very close to them.”
The Mafia has always been part of Saviano’s life. He comes from the Italian town of Casal di Principe near Naples. His father, a doctor, was beaten up for taking care of a Mafia victim when Saviano was a child. When Saviano was 16, the Camorra murdered Don Giuseppe Diana, a local priest. From the age of 18, he did odd jobs at companies that the Camorra controlled, which gave him his first direct contact with the underworld.
But he wasn’t immediately aware what a large part it would play in his future. Inspired by writer and philosopher Ernst Jünger, in his late teens he wanted to join the French Foreign Legion. “I wanted to emulate him,” he says. “Thankfully they didn’t accept me. I was still wet behind the ears.” Saviano laughs briefly – the only time he does so during the interview.
Instead, perhaps still with Jünger in mind, he studied philosophy in Naples, after which he wrote for several Italian daily newspapers before turning his attention to the world of organised crime. He gathered material, hung around Mafia meeting places, waited tables at their weddings. “Today I’d be a lot more cautious,” he says. “When I think of how openly I promoted my first book, that was very rash.”
There’s a short pause. And then a confession.
“I regret writing Gomorrah,” he says. “It’s made my life very difficult. I constantly have to change where I’m staying. I can’t go home. I live under guard. The same applies to my family. I have terrible feelings of guilt towards them.”
But as Saviano admits, with that same serene expression on his face, his work hasn’t just changed his life on the outside.
Who thinks about the Mafioso?
“In ZeroZeroZero I wrote, ‘When you look into the abyss, you end up turning into a monster sooner or later.’ I’ve turned into a monster myself by analysing and studying the world of organised crime from every angle. I have difficulties developing real human relationships, like a member of the Mafia. I find it very hard to truly trust people. I’ve got used to always just seeing the darker side. Everyone has a brighter side but I’m mostly concerned with looking into the shadows. You even end up learning to think like they do.”
It’s perhaps this ability to get into a Mafioso’s head that’s made Saviano’s work on organised crime so gripping and, for him and the Mafia families, so dangerous. “A member of the organised crime world divides people into two categories,” he says. “Those who comply with the laws and those who follow the rules. Anyone who abides by the law has no power. But people who follow the rules have opted for real power. The rules were developed aeons ago. They are guided by real circumstances and are pragmatic, whereas laws are just constructs thought up by a group of people to rule over the general public.”
Suddenly the door opens. One of the bodyguards comes in and wants to clarify something with Saviano. For a moment he seems vexed and startled. Yet the reason for the interruption is completely mundane – he wants to charge Saviano’s mobile phone.
Saviano quickly composes himself. “Basically, my book changed the general perception of the Mafia considerably,” he says. “It showed that the Camorra isn’t an out-of-town problem, and is in fact rooted right in the middle of our society, diverting enormous amounts of money through legal channels. But for all the shadiness, there is also a small light at the end of the tunnel. My hometown, for example, elected Renato Natale mayor this year and he is against the clans.”
There are also signs of hope for him personally. In 2008, Mafia bosses Antonio Iovine and Francesco Bidognetti released a statement in which they blamed Saviano and others for their capture, thus increasing the threat tohis life.
Both are currently serving long sentences behind bars and set to face more charges this year, while Iovine has since turned informant. “If they are convicted for the threat they made against me, then things could improve for me,” says Saviano. “It would mean that the state comes down hard on an organisation that threatens other people. Maybe then I’d have more freedom. Maybe I’d even be able to move back to Italy permanently, provided the police allow me to. Ultimately they’re the ones who will decide what happens to me.”
With some momentum starting to build behind Saviano’s anti-Mafia stance, the big question is now how the Camorra and those like them can be defeated.
“One step would be to legalise drugs – first the less serious ones and then all, even the harder drugs,” says Saviano. “That would see the Mafia lose one of its biggest and most important sources of income. Tightening laws against money-laundering is also extremely important. State contracts also need to be handed out within tighter parameters. Currently, it’s usually the company that makes the lowest bid which is awarded the contract.”
Saviano becomes optimistic at the talk of possible solutions. He quotes the magistrate Giovanni Falcone, who was murdered by the Sicilian Mafia in 1992. “The Mafia is a human phenomenon and thus, like all human phenomena, it will also have an end.”
Saviano gets up and says goodbye. He seems small, almost fragile, not as you’d imagine someone taking on the world’s crime syndicates to look. “I’ll keep on fighting,” he says, gently and calmly, but with determination.