When I first came across Roberto Saviano, he was an unknown freelance writer whose work had appeared in rather obscure left-wing newspapers and journals. I, myself, had written for those magazines, and I can assure you that you would not get noticed much!
But thanks to one of his early mentors, Goffredo Fofi, Saviano landed a contract with a major publisher, Mondadori, and, in 2006, Gomorrah took Italy by storm. Saviano was 29 years old and became famous overnight. The book was a peculiar work of literature, a non-fiction novel that had the power to turn news about Mafia infighting in the Naples area into a national, and later international, story.
Until Gomorrah, hardly anybody had paid any attention to the Mafia war – the so-called faida di Secondigliano – which raged in Campania between 2004 and 2005, killing over seventy people. Many of these people were innocent bystanders. Entire communities were under siege.
Saviano took the reader inside a world of moral rot, where values were upside down, love was replaced by hatred, life with death, and people were turned into guinea pigs to test drugs. Basic human decency had been lost. Many of those who lived in that hell had started to accept it as normal. It was not, Saviano told us.
At a time when intellectuals and policy makers were placidly thinking that conflicts and contradictions had come to an end (recall the book by Francis Fukuyama, The End of History), at a time when many thought that the post-cold war consensus was going to solve peacefully and amicably every conflict and Western values could spread easily, and that European countries were set to progressively come closer to each other, Saviano told us that violence was pervasive and ubiquitous. He told us that the logic of the market co-existed with Mafia values, and that, inside the very heart of Europe, history was still going on. A history that we did not want to hear about, as much as we did not want to know about the massacres in Chechnya or the tragedies in Africa and Latin America.
Since I study organised crime, the book had other virtues for me. It clearly described the ‘system’, il sistema, where the legitimate world and the criminal world came together, where firms from the north of Italy joined forces with the Camorra to dump toxic waste in Campania. Or where famous fashion houses had their dresses made in sweatshops supported financially by the Camorra. This was a story that could have been told about India or South East Asia, and it was in our backyard.
After the book became a best-seller, Saviano was forced to live under police protection. He was issued a death sentence by the very authority that he had challenged.
Since 2006, Saviano has had a tremendous influence on Italian political and cultural debates. I particularly admired the way he took on an Italian Home Secretary who denied that Mafia groups from the South operate happily in the north of Italy, especially in Lombardy. The former Home Secretary is now the head of the regional government of Lombardy and a prominent leader of the Northern League.
Saviano has been very bipartisan in his advocacy work. He has exposed the contradictions of the Berlusconi coalition of right-wing parties, which included – and still includes – racist and neo-fascist parties. But he has also criticised the mainstream left. Most recently, Saviano has been very vocal in relation to the elections in Campania. In several party lists, people convicted for serious crimes have all found a place.
I consider one of Saviano’s most significant contributions to the cultural life of my country of origin to be his promotion of literature, of great authors that speak the universal language of truth through fiction.
I might be biased – given my own interest in Russia – but Saviano has championed in particular two authors that deserve to be on anybody’s shelf: Varlam Shalamov, the author of Kolyma Tales, who was for 16 years a prisoner in the ‘land of the white death’, as his Siberian camp was known at the time, and Evgenya Ginzburg, who was sentenced to 18 years in the Soviet Gulag and is the author of a two-volume memoir.
Ginzburg and Shalamov told us that human dignity can survive in the most brutal situations, and that although unjust powers can take our freedom, our belongings, our friends, they can never take our soul.
Albert Camus, another author very dear to Roberto Saviano, wrote, ‘the purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.’ Saviano has devoted his life to that purpose, and I salute him for that.
Roberto Saviano appeared at Bristol Festival of Ideas on 30 June 2015. Listen to a recording of the event here.