Roberto Saviano by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Roberto Saviano


A sense of guilt crept over me. Who knows what I’d taken part in, without making a decision, without really choosing. It was one thing to damn myself intentionally, but instead I’d ended up unloading clandestine goods out of curiosity. For some reason one stupidly thinks a criminal act has to be more thought out, more deliberate than an innocuous one. But there’s really no difference. Gestures know an elasticity that ethical judgments ignore.

Roberto Saviano’s gritty denunciation of the Mafia based in his hometown of Naples has been hailed as ‘a superb piece of investigative reporting’. The film of the book, Gomorrah (now showing in the UK), won the Grand Prix at Cannes in May this year and is Italy’s official entry for the Oscars, but its success has increased the danger for the book’s author. Saviano, twenty-nine, has already been living under permanent police protection for the last two years, having received numerous death threats. But in recent weeks he has been forced to leave Italy and seek a safe haven elsewhere. The mobsters he exposed in the book, published in the UK as Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia, have reportedly threatened to assassinate him by Christmas.

The book has been described as ‘a kaleidoscopic personal testimony rooted in a visceral rage and revulsion at what organised crime has done to one of the most beautiful places on earth’. Its title is a play on the word ‘Camorra’, the Neapolitan Mafia – and particularly the clan based at Casal di Principe, outside Naples, where Saviano grew up. Known by insiders as ‘the System’, the Camorra is involved in many lucrative enterprises, from construction and high fashion to illicit drugs and toxic waste disposal, and it has infiltrated various international markets.

Violence in the area is endemic and the brutality of the mob also taints the young. As well as the murder of children caught in the crossfire, Saviano was concerned by the involvement of young hoodlums who, trapped by drugs, become immersed in the Camorra’s activities as teenagers. Saviano claims to have seen his first murder victim, aged thirteen, en route to school. He also recounts the experience of his own father, a doctor, who was savagely beaten after tending to the eighteen-year-old victim of a Camorra shooting.

As well as these personal anecdotes, Saviano spent time for the purposes of research on a construction site and worked as an assistant for a Chinese textile manufacturer. He also assisted a photographer who took pictures at Camorra weddings. His courage in exposing the mob’s criminal activities is all the more remarkable when you consider that the Camorra is more deadly than the Sicilian Mafia and has the highest murder rate of all the criminal organisations in the world – reportedly four thousand dead in four decades.

The book has proved hugely popular in Italy, and has sold over a million copies there alone. It has been translated into thirty-two languages and the film will ensure that it reaches an even wider international audience. But the author has paid a heavy price for this success. Saviano is reported to be living under twenty-four-hour protection, watched over by a team of seven paramilitary carabinieri. He has described how he is ‘moved around like a package without knowing what’s up or what could be up’. Although obviously grateful for this protection, Saviano claims that living his life in a ‘decompression chamber’ has prevented him from pursuing his career as an author.

As PEN has highlighted, Saviano is one of many writers worldwide who, in speaking out, are placed in enormous danger. The writers’ organisation has documented the cases of thirty-one writers and journalists who, this year alone, have been murdered as a result of their work.

One cannot help but be reminded of Salman Rushdie’s plight in 1989 when he first came under a fatwa for The Satanic Verses, condemned by Iran’s theocratic regime for insulting Islam. Saviano faces the same living hell as that experienced by Rushdie: driven underground, his independence as a writer is compromised, his ability to see his family and friends is curtailed and he is no longer able to travel freely. Rushdie has spoken up in support of Saviano, claiming that he ‘is in terrible danger, worse than me’.

In the book Saviano writes about Father Giuseppe Diana (Don Peppino), who, in March 1994, was executed as he prepared to celebrate Mass in his church in Casal di Principe. His ‘crime’ was to have denounced the Camorra in an open letter of protest and a tract he distributed on Christmas Day. Saviano would have been fourteen at the time of his murder. Like Don Peppino, Saviano has demonstrated the potency of the written word. One can only hope that he won’t be silenced in the same way.

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica’s website, for which Saviano writes, has launched an appeal urging the Italian government to recognise its responsibility regarding the author. Readers may like to join the petition by following the link below.

or write direct to:

Silvio Berlusconi
Premier’s Office
Palazzo Chigi
Piazza Colonna
Rome 00187

Updates: Emaddedin Baqi (LR, December 2007) was provisionally released from Evin Prison on 15 September 2008 to undergo medical treatment, and on 20 October he learned that he had been granted a definitive release on expiry of his sentence. On 23 October 2008 Kurdish journalist Mohammad Sadiq Kabudvand (LR, July 2008) received an eleven-year prison sentence. 

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