From his writer’s prison, the exiled Roberto Saviano continues to fight for the country he loves
He was in his twenties when his name suddenly appeared on two rankings: As a best-selling writer and as enemy number one of the Neapolitan mafia. It changed Roberto Saviano’s life forever.
“If only I’d changed their names!” he exclaims in one of his conversations with Giovanni di Lorenzo, the German-Italian editor-in-chief of the German weekly Die Zeit, in the newly published Erklär mir Italien («Explain Italy»). And who should he have named? Well, the members of the Italian crime organization known as the Camorra whom he exposed one by one in his book Gomorrah – which, after its publication in 2006, was also made into a film and a TV show. It only added to Saviano’s misery that Gomorrah went on to win a number of international prizes and sold two million copies in a few years. Today, some eleven years later, Saviano is still living under police protection – indefinitely. It is, to use his own words, a “shitty life”. There is plenty of proof that the mafia never forgets. If it would really have helped to use the real names of the mobsters or not we can only speculate. In any case he has decided to publish his latest book, La paranza dei bambini (about the so-called baby mafiosos) in the form of a novel.
Loving his country
Photos of Saviano show a serious man staring directly at the camera. His melancholia is almost palpable, his fate written on his face. And despite everything, despite all the suffering that the Camorra has subjected him to, they never succeeded in killing off his creative energy. Saviano still relentlessly writes his books and articles. He does research in all kinds of ways – using trial records, archives, witness testimony – in short, everything that can be accessed from a writing desk. He appears at select arrangements, and in the US, where he lives part of the time, he can even occasionally move about without bodyguards. But emigrating? Out of the question. Saviano doesn’t want to be given the role of the hero: “I only want to tell my stories, to let my words become tools, keys, that can open locked doors. And if I hadn’t loved my country I would never have done what I’m doing.”
All against all
Roberto Saviano doesn’t go easy on his own people. He describes a society caught in a mess of its own making, where corruption is so deeply ingrained that his only advice is to stay well clear of it all. As for himself he has turned down every job offer he has received, as he «would only be exploited and misused”. “The real tragedy is that there’s no longer any political movement that wouldn’t just bring with it a dangerous mix of utopianism, populism and hostility to democracy and Europe. The high levels of unemployment have created a conflict of all against all. Europe, the euro and refugees are the favourite targets. We must recover our credibility. The truth is that I only feel Italian when I’m not in Italy.”
Saviano has other reasons to be unhappy in addition to the obvious ones. One thing is that he is forced to stay in hiding while at the same time living in the limelight. It’s the best form of protection. Another, and even more bitter one, are all the attacks from the regular “good citizens”, who accuse him of not saying “anything new” while enjoying a celebrity lifestyle at the state’s expense. However unfair the criticism is, Saviano admits to feeling hurt by it, adding: “My job isn’t to present the news. What I do, and what especially provokes the cammoristi because it hurts their reputation and influence, is to connect the dots, develop the overall pictures and the analyses.”
«There is no longer Any political movement that wouldn’t just bring with it a dangerous mix of utopianism, populism and hostility to democracy»
An example is the international debate on terror, which according to Saviano fails to see the connection between Islamists and “ordinary” criminals. “It’s an omission we’re suffering for. To an explosively increasing degree. For what makes the acts carried out by criminal Islamists special? Most analyses focus on the fundamentalist-religious doctrine of the perpetrators. What is lacking are insights on the parallels to the crime organizations we already know, like the mafia.”
What are the victims of terror – in France, Belgium, Germany, as well as future ones – paying the price for? In the article «Waffen, Männer, Geld und Tod» («Weapons, men, money and death”), published in Die Zeit in March 2016, Saviano elaborates his analysis. “Society – all of us – pays the price for having seen crime as a marginal evil, something we can mentally ignore as long as it doesn’t affect us and the areas we live. The message to the children of immigrants growing up in Europe’s housing developments is therefore: “You can throw your life away as long as you remain out of sight. The message is received. From there the road to alternative communities, to utopian liberation – via regular crime to Islamic fundamentalism – is short. The road back, however, is either long or non-existent.”
Riches bring risks
“In the training camps of Syria”, explains Saviano, “all the qualities that society have hitherto condemned criminals for possessing are suddenly honoured. These guys know the ropes; they can easily spot the plainclothes policeman, know how to acquire and handle weapons. Not least they know all the channels where money for financing terror cells can be found. They’re weapons smugglers, drug dealers, they’re conmen of all kinds. New generations – whether from Asia, Africa or South America – live with the notion that any economic success comes with the risk of ending up in jail, of having to kill or be killed. The dream of wealth, whether it’s in Naples or Molenbeek, means that you have to risk your life. And here’s the spark that fires up those who don’t want to die in a gang war. They want to serve a higher purpose: to die in jihad. The thinking of a suicide bomber isn’t very different from that of any other loser whose only capital is his own body and whose only currency is violence.”
«The truth is that i only feel italian when i’m not in Italy. »
Roberto Saviano lives in a permanent social strait jacket. Any kind of private life is almost non-existent. His need to express himself is evident when he addresses his audience from the Schaubühne scene in Berlin. His words are accompanied by gestures almost suggesting a sign language. But a question from di Lorenzo – “How can you love a country that drives you to despair?” – momentarily silences him. “I love the people; I’m struck by the beautify of a Caravaggio painting, by the harmony of an Italian square; by the light, the sky, the sense of beauty that is still more marked there than in any other country in the world.”
Besides, love isn’t something we have to earn. It’s unconditional.