I have very few heroes, but the Italian journalist, author and anti-mafia campaigner Roberto Saviano is one of them. Ten years ago Saviano’s life was threatened by the Italian Camorra (the Naples mafia), after he denounced them in his book, Gomorrah. He has spent the past decade in hiding and under police protection, emerging occasionally into the light and public life – as he did this May for an event organized by English PEN in London. In 2011 Saviano, in absentia, and the English playwright David Hare (another hero of mine – along with Margaret Atwood, Bjork and Kylie Minogue!) were jointly awarded the UK’s annual PEN PINTER Prize, and they finally met tonight in London, for the first time. Saviano’s plight was one of the main reasons I had originally joined English PEN, and (don’t laugh!) also Twitter and Facebook, as they each, in their own way, provided me with communities of like-minded people.Saviano was a young man of only 26 when he was forced to say “goodbye” to a normal life; to his family, friends, playing football, the Italian sunshine; to his freedom. Today he is 36 and no further along in his fight for freedom. He is instead very famous, surrounded by bodyguards, not because he’s a rock star, but because he tells the truth. My journalist colleague, Misha Glenny – a friend of Saviano’s and a fellow exposer of truths – described the experience of appearing with him on stage in Italy to discuss organized crime: “I now know how it must feel to work as a backing vocalist for The Rolling Stones.” If some Italians want to kill him, for many others Saviano is a hero.
Gaby Wood: Were you naive to think nothing would happen after publishing Gomorrah?
The facts were already known, it was simply how I wrote them, in a literary style, like a novel, as a storyteller. It was a novel then a film then a TV series… that widened the reach. In the TV show Gomorrah, I removed everything good in any character. It’s all vermin. I want evil to be inescapable. The one thing we need is the truth.
Shortly after his “imprisonment,” I interviewed him, with another colleague, for a BBC documentary entitled The Italian Patient. We couldn’t meet face to face, so we had to record him on the phone, and only after convoluted negotiations. He described, in sober detail, the “sickness” of his home city, Naples, and of Italy under then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Our BBC documentary title, echoing the phrase “The Sick Man of Europe,” must surely now apply to our blighted Britain, not Italy?
Ten years ago, because of the high drama of Saviano and Berlusconi, and all its other melodramas, Italy was constantly in the headlines. As a BBC journalist with a great love for Italy and the Italian language, I felt privileged to cover that crazy country, and Saviano’s books helped me to understand Italy: Gomorrah; his essays Beauty and the Inferno, and most recently ZeroZeroZero, a lyrical expose of the cocaine trade. In May this year, my fellow judges and I selected the English translation of ZeroZeroZero as one of our choices for our eighth European Literature Night at the British Library – but Saviano couldn’t make the date “for operational reasons.” Neither, by the way, for other reasons, could another great Italian truth-teller, the novelist Elena Ferrante. Saviano and Ferrante together on-stage one day: that would be something!
What do you hope to achieve by pointing things out?
It creates hope. Less hope in justice, but more hope in goodness. I believe in goodness,
a universal meaning of goodness, eye to eye, hand to hand, and I hope my readers will feel that too…
With freedom of speech, you have to lose it to love it. I am heard, but it is important that we hear many voices, not just mine. We need more diversity. We also need to hear from the victims (of crime, mafia, corruption). We need to enlarge the points of view to make freedom of speech matter even more…
It is our duty to write about things which you would otherwise not hear about. For example, the plays that David writes.
Today, Roberto Saviano sits with David Hare and the interviewer Gaby Wood, in front of a packed audience. I tap out scribbled notes on my iPad, as he speaks in eloquent Italian:
“I didn’t choose this ten years ago. It was a disaster. I didn’t walk willingly into the flames. I never expected to lose my freedom.”
Ten years on, like a nightingale in a cage, Roberto Saviano still sings to the rafters and lifts our spirits. After the English PEN event, I joined the lengthy queue of admirers waiting to have our books signed, waiting to meet him for the first time. Then suddenly there he was in front of me, handsome, gracious. I said “buona sera” – then forgot all my Italian. He shook my hand, smiled and signed my book:
A Rosie, con un bacio. Roberto Saviano.
By Rosie Goldsmith
This blog was originally published on Versopolis. European Review of Poetry, Books and Culture.