Roberto Saviano is only 30 years old, a slight, balding man of average height. There's a hipster edge to him, his black clothes, three thick silver rings, a cool day's growth of beard. He is young, famous and easy on the eyes, an Italian superstar.
You won't find him fending off the groupies at the discos in Milan or Rome though. Since 2006, when he published his first book, Gomorrah, a punch in the face to the Italian crime clans, he's had to live under constant police protection. He arrived for our meeting in an unmarked police car, and one of his crew of bodyguards was never more than 20 feet away as we talked about the Mafia's use of African migrants for a story in (READ IT HERE) TIME today.
Saviano, who grew up in the Naples area, wrote a book that the New York Times called "the most important book to come out of Italy in years." To write it, he researched the clans that run the region where he grew up, worked for the bosses, interviewed them and their minions, and studied their culture of death: he listened to police scanners, riding up on his Vespa to bear witness to the gory aftermath of dozens of mob executions.
The movie made of his book last year is riveting, but it doesn't come close to the book. Southern Italy's crime clans don't just run southern Italy's economy. According to Saviano, their reach stretches into the malls of America, where you buy your cheesy Valentino or D&G knock-off jeans; into Africa, where they dump your first world toxic waste; they move billions of pounds of Chinese merchandise around the world; and they are into all the usual Sopranos stuff: insurance, construction, gun-running, cocaine, prostitution.
In short, they are the world's shadow economy. The ultimate capitalists.
I didn't know what to expect before I met him in Rome this week, because his book is such a powerful piece of writing. What I found was a man who seems reclusive, slightly nervous, maybe shy. He concedes that he is happy his book is a massive success, but his personal life has been wrecked. Being under a death threat is not glamorous at all.
In his three years as Italy's Salman Rushdie, Saviano's book sold 3 million copies and was translated into 42 languages. He also lost a girlfriend, and lives like a recluse, boxing with his guards for exercise, looking over his shoulder, traveling only in police cars.
Isolated, he has ample time to reflect on where his explosive contribution fits into the canon of Mafia art. "The Sopranos were more realistic than The Godfather," he says. "Francis Ford Coppola did one of the greatest favors to the Mafia by making that movie. It's the movie most loved by the clans. You can't deny the charm or fascination that criminal organizations create. But the task of the artist or journalist is to break that fascination down into pieces.
"I don't regret my book, but if I am talking about what it's done to my private life, no, it wasn't worth it."
We parted ways after an hour, he loping off into the night with his armed friend. The last we saw of him was a car whizzing off into the Roman distance, a blue light flashing on its roof.