Beauty and the Inferno – Roberto Saviano
Roberto Saviano rose to prominence after writing Gomorrah in 2006, a brutal exposé of the Neopolitan mafia that was subsequently turned into a prize-winning film in 2008. As a result of the book, Saviano was black-listed by numerous factions of the Camorra, a criminal organisation based in Naples, to the extent that the Italian Minister of the Interior granted him a permanent police escort in 2006. Despite this clear government recognition of the danger Saviano faces on a daily basis, Silvio Berlusconi, among others, has made it a habit of labelling him unpatriotic for his criticism of the criminality lying at the heart of several major sectors of the Italian economy. It is, as a result, a powerful combination of injustice and isolation that drives Saviano’s collection of essays, all written since he effectively became a recluse, an ironic prisoner of his own writing:
“I work like an inmate.”
Unsurprisingly, given Saviano’s area of expertise, a lot of the book deals with organised crime in the south of Italy, particularly in relation to the construction and waste disposal industries. However, perhaps because he feels that he is constantly fighting a losing battle against forces that seem to be beyond the reach of the law or any sort of morality, Saviano’s essays are littered with stories of individuals who have shared a similar position of vulnerability yet still managed to keep fighting. Lionel Messi’s battle against dwarfism, for instance, is the subject of one chapter entitled “Playing it all”, as is Joe Pistone, the man behind the character of Donnie Brasco. At various stages in the book, Saviano talks about his friendship with Salman Rushdie and their shared experiences of living under police protection.
“Writing is a form of resisting; writing is resisting.”
I would argue that the most important effect of Saviano’s writing to date has been to pull back the veil of glamour surrounding the Italian mafia. Gomorrah was grim both because of the brutal murders and because of the depiction of the squalor of the Naples slums in which the Camorra has thrived. Simply put, Saviano’s mafia is not the mafia of The Godfather, not the mafia of privilege, wealth and Italian sophistication, a myth created by Hollywood over the years by a gradual desensitising of its audience (these days, wiseguys are just as likely to make appearances in romcoms as they are in thrillers). Perhaps it is this context that makes Saviano’s particular brand of realism so important. In an age in which the gangster’s crowning ambition of personal gain seems increasingly to reflect social norms, it is literature like this that becomes indispensable in order to bring people back down to earth, regardless of however much men like Berlusconi would like to carry pretending everything is fine (presumably he is deeply enamoured of Hollywood’s potrayal of the mafia).
There is no doubt that Saviano’s literature is “engaged”, in the tradition of Italy’s letteratura impegnata, and he makes a point of saying so at various points in the book. Frankly, how can it not be? In the preface, “The Dangers of Reading”, the author tells us that over the past few years he has written from at least ten different apartments, staying in each for only a few months. Saviano explains that it is writing that allows him to live like this, giving him a voice in an otherwise silent world. But readers be warned, it is not a gentle voice, rather one that punches you in the solar plexus and shouts at you while you’re gasping for breath.