By CLARK BENTSON, ABC News Rome
Roberto Saviano is a household name in Italy. As an author of a best-selling book that has now been made into an acclaimed international film, Saviano, at the age of 28, is probably at the height of his career. But instead of red carpets and book tours, Saviano can only celebrate his success in hiding, under 24 hour police protection, since his book "Gomorrah" was published two years ago.
"Gomorrah" is the story of organized crime in Saviano’s native city of Naples, Italy. Known locally as the Camorra -- a loose group of families whose hands are found in all aspects of life in Naples and the surrounding towns in the southern province of Campania -- the book and film starkly portray its actions as a cancer slowly destroying the community.
The book was not the first on the Camorra or other organized crime syndicates, such as the Mafia in Sicily, but this story has touched a chord with Italians, and now also with an international audience. It has also touched a nerve with the Camorra.
Saviano never sleeps in the same bed two nights in a row. Instead, he rotates from one local police precinct bunkhouse to another. All his movements must be relayed in advance for security purposes. Interviews to promote the book and film are conducted in safe locations.
Recently, a plot by the Casalesi clan to blow up Saviano sometime before Christmas was alleged by a police informant. And while the plot has now been denied, it harkens back to the assassination of two anti-Mafia crusades killed in a similar fashion in Sicily that shocked the nation.
A leading newspaper in Rome, La Repubblica, has launched a petition drive urging Italians to rally the state to crack down on organized crime and safeguard Saviano’s rights as a journalist. Many Nobel laureates have signed the petition and civic and student organizations have expressed solidarity. But after two years on the run from death threats, the strain is beginning to wear on Saviano. He has started to speak of seeking a new identity and life in the United States.
The film "Gomorrah" is the Italian candidate in this year’s Oscar candidates for best foreign film. The book has been translated into English and is now available in the United States. Perhaps Roberto Saviano will become a household name in America too -- but only for the reason that he is a good journalist and author.
Enrico Caria, an author and film director, like Roberto Saviano, a native of Naples. Caria’s film, "See Naples and Then Die (Vedi Napoli e Poi Muori," looked at the resurgence of the Camorra. Caria offered this perspective to ABC News on what makes Roberto Saviano’s character, why Saviano’s "Gomorrah" has made such an impact on Italians, and why it has so infuriated the Camorra crime families. By Enrico Caria I didn’t know Roberta Saviano, and I didn’t want to interview him.
It was autumn 2005, and neither he nor I could presume that the book he was editing then would sell more than a few thousand copies. That is the usual f fate for essays about the Camorra, even if they are novels.
I was about to finish the shooting of a documentary movie about Camorra, and I wanted to interview Chiara Marasca, a young, good-looking editor of a local newspaper there on the frontlines against crime. But Chiara is shy, so she showed up with this skinny young man with two large eyes who wrote for a biweekly magazine telling me that he knew more about the Camorra than Maradona (the revered Argentine soccer player) knows about soccer balls.
I was sceptical. I had been convinced that Chiara would have a good onscreen presence while this nearly bald freelance journalist with a beard wouldn’t.
But I conceded. I said, “Action!” The camera started rolling and Roberto stopped smiling. He started talking about the nature of the people usually perceived as local petty criminals. He talked about the degree of their penetration inside the financial and industrial world at the national level; their trafficking and money laundering from France to Germany, from Scotland to Canada and Sweden. It was a very detailed and astonishing description. Then he started rattling off names and surnames of the Camorra bosses, and his eyes lit up with rage. It was at this point he came alive on the screen.
Never before had specific names been stated for the record on-camera, not to mention in such a challenging tone. Never before had a book been able to explain Camorra and at the same time tell such a great story.
"Gomorrah" is not investigative journalism because none of the facts in the narration were previously unknown to judges, police or politicians. It is not a novel because nothing in the book is fiction. It has the rhythm of a news report, but it is not an “instant-book.” Its appeal and its power come from the first person narration. Saviano clashes with the Camorra bosses with his head first; insulting them, provoking them with a language that melds dialect and slang in a breathtaking one-on-one fight.
According to the sociologist Amato Lamberti, founder of the Observatory on the Camorra, there are two ways for a journalist to become the target of a Camorra boss: Reveal unknown plans (as Giancarlo Siani, who was killed by the Camorra in 1985 at the age of 26 -- the same age as Saviano when he wrote "Gomorrah" -- did), or treat them with derision.
The bosses can tolerate criminal trials, wire-tapping, confiscation of their finances, or hard time in jail; none of these things diminish their stature in front of their followers. Nothing does -- except public and unpunished insults.
Saviano, who understood Lamberti’s theories, didn’t listen. While his book was a becoming a literary phenomenon, selling more than 20,000 copies, Saviano wanted to present it publicly in the main square of Casal di Principe, the hometown of the very bosses whom he challenged in the book. He started screaming from the podium, “Schiavone, Jovine, Zagaria, you are nothing; you are not worth anything; and you must leave this land.”
The next day the fugitive godfathers, the most ferocious of bosses who know how to express their wishes through the local press made their first move. A small, disreputable daily, The Corriere di Caserta, wrote that there were bosses on the square asking around to find out the names of each and every person who had been cheering loudly. The same paper described the speech as “daring” and retorted that not everyone had been impressed by Saviano’s insults.
Next, the telephone calls at all hours of the night began with no one on the other end.
The feeling of isolation began -- waiters would tell him that you are not welcome, the shopkeepers he had always frequented began murmuring “Why do you shop here for your bread?” -- not to mention the initial dismissal by the local government. Even the most prominent leaders criticized him, such as the mayor of Naples, Rosa Russo Iervolino, who said of Saviano immediately after the speech -- in an interview with L'Espresso -- that “he has a cross-eyed obsession.”
Saviano, on the contrary, demonstrated that he can see and can make people see; he can understand and make people understand. That is because in this book there is his life, the heart of his generation, people who are often forced to choose between crime and immigration. Casal di Principle, besides being Camorra’s capital, is Saviano’s hometown where he was born and raised. This is where he shared experiences at the school, on the soccer fields, at the bar, at the playground with these Camorra bosses’ children.
But there is more in Saviano’s history, in his rage, in his challenge. There are wounds and ghosts that seem to come from an epic Greek tragedy. As he writes in his book, Saviano’s father is a doctor who taught him from childhood how to shoot and gave him the idea that only a man with a university diploma and a gun is a real man. This is the same father who when his son Roberto was given a round-the-clock armed security escort turned his back on him and no longer acknowledges him.
The rest of the story is known. By selling millions of copies, Saviano has put the spotlight on the Casalesi family boss and the Spartacus criminal trials that prosecuted them. He showed up at the trials and cheered loudly when the Casalesi clan members were convicted to multiple life sentences. This earned Saviano even more explicit death threats. These threats have made "Gomorrah" a better-selling book all over the world and sustain the continuing success of the movie, which, with the book, continues the vicious, terrible circle.
The Nouvel Observateur journalist Marcelle Padovani (who wrote the biography of the assassinated judge Giovanni Falcone) told me her impression of Saviano, after meeting him. “He is like Falcone, who was able to fight the mafia because he grew up among them and spoke their same language.” And then she revealed, “You know what he told me? That he would like to marry a good girl and raise a family. He would like to marry a virgin.”
Is this the heritage of a chauvinist culture that Saviano grew out of? Is it a subconscious ghost of a misogynist mentality that is based on respect, honor and abuse of power that explains why he is fighting to risk his own life? Probably none of this. Probably in the fantasy of an ideal for “untouched” love Saviano nourishes the dream of a life that he would have wanted: without the past.