The Face of Courage: An Exclusive Interview With Roberto Saviano

I caught up with Roberto Saviano on his last day in the Big Apple, and he shared his views on NYC, daily life with a military escort, Occupy Wall Street, 9/11, sex in the mafia and, of course,.
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Roberto Saviano is an Italian journalist, author of the non-fiction novel Gomorrah (published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which to date has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, has been translated into 54 languages and in 2008 was made into an award-winning film. Saviano's book is an engrossing look into the inner workings of the Neapolitan mafia, La Camorra, which has resonated around the world because of the far-reaching arms of organized crime. Shortly after sales of Gomorrah reached 100,000 copies in 2006, Saviano's life was threatened and he was forced to go into hiding. In the Fall of 2011, he "secretly" taught a graduate course on the mafia at New York University. I caught up with him on his last morning in the Big Apple, and over the course of a couple of hours, Saviano generously shared his views on NYC, daily life with a military escort, Occupy Wall Street, 9/11, sex in the mafia and, of course, Gomorrah.

On the NYC subway on my way to meet Roberto Saviano, I'm overcome by an eerie feeling. I remember reading how difficult it has been for other journalists to schedule an interview with the elusive writer, due to the logistics of someone who lives in hiding -- meetings gone the way of missed communications, misdirected places and uncomfortable pat downs. Yet for me, it all seemed to be miraculously organized in less than twelve hours, with the help of a human angel whose identity I will not disclose.

"What if it's a set-up?" I ask myself, already feeling the tug of paranoia that Saviano must call his daily life companion, since the publication five years ago of his captivating, tell-all book.

I'm supposed to meet Saviano at a private home downtown. I have been instructed which buzzer to press, and he will personally let me in. Just like that? I take a moment to compose myself and dismiss my overactive cinematic imagination, but a paragraph from Gomorrah pops into my head, about how it's better (meaning faster and cleaner) to die from a shot to the head, than one to the heart.

Once on site, I see an unmarked police car parked out front, and I remember passing a group of suited up cops in overcoats smoking their cigarettes, hanging out just down the block. Welcomed sights, and when I hear over the intercom Saviano's unmistakable, self-assured, kind voice, his Italian with just the slightest hint of a Neapolitan accent to make it sexy, every last bit of apprehension is melted away.

In person, Saviano is at once intense and friendly, slim, in shape. He is 32 and handsome, in the way only someone who has committed his life to uncovering the truth can be. Behind his captivating eyes lies a neverending well of fascinating information. Yet he never appears to know it all -- which by the way, I am convinced he does -- but rather allows for a spontaneous mutual dialogue of cultures, cities, lives and experiences.

On October 13th, 2006, while on a train from Pordenone to Naples, Roberto Saviano received a phone call that changed his life. It was the Italian Carabinieri, informing him that "there had been a series of disclosures by repented criminals, as well as intercepted phone calls that, once analyzed, made it clear I was to be eliminated" he calmly reveals.

"I remember, it was a Friday" he continues, "I laughed, I told them it wasn't possible, but when I arrived at Naples station, the Carabinieri were there to pick me up and from then on, I've never gone without their protection again." Saviano had become a man marked for death by the Camorra, AKA "Il Sistema" -- The System. To this day, he travels with an armed escort of five plus two, seven Carabinieri, and is shuffled between "absurd places, barracks, strange sites, isolated." He admits, without a hint of self-pity, it has become "my life sentence, I've been living like this for the past five years. At times, it has been impossibly hard... impossible." He gives the thick silver band on his left index finger a couple of turns, calmly.

Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk had it easy compared to this journalist from Casal di Principe with a passion for honesty. Because religious leaders die, national laws can be changed, but the Camorra is here to stay, ever present, shifting bosses and always waiting. Anyone who comes from Naples and its surroundings learns this truth along with their ABCs. If you own a store, you pay a little each month as protection, just so it won't be burned down. If you need to be uncomfortable bedfellows with the Camorra for your factory to get by, you deny its very existence.

Denial also happens to be the first line of defense used by lawyers for accused bosses at mafia trials. Their point always is that "the Camorra doesn't exist" instead the deaths, the bodies, even the blood feuds are caused by "the violent culture of the territory, and family rivalries."

During the largest Italian mafia trial of the last 20 years -- the "Spartacus Maxi-Trial" -- the lawyer for two of the accused bosses -- Antonio Iovine and Francesco Bidognetti -- noted as part of the defense that Saviano, along with a magistrate, should be held "personally responsible for these men's conviction, because they have influenced the trial with their use of the media." Saviano describes that condemnation as a "truly dark moment" of his life, as was the time, around a year and a half ago, when then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared he had defamed Italy around the world with his book Gomorrah.

Saviano then poses a question, almost to himself "I was 26 years old when I ended up under military escort. Why did the Camorra get so enraged?" Only to immediately provide the answer "my culpability was this -- to have told those stories that were already there, in crime columns, newspapers, in judicial documents and in a thousand other books, but through my own style, which is non-fiction, written like a novel but with real facts. In today's world," he continues, "it's not information itself that disturbs, because everything is said, everything comes and goes, it's very difficult for anything to remain secret anymore; but the real challenge lies in passing along this information to the public, making it become a subject that people talk about, discuss, repeat and want to understand better."


Saviano points out:

In today's world, it's not information itself that disturbs, because everything is said, everything comes and goes, it's very difficult for anything to remain secret anymore; but the real challenge lies in passing along this information to the public, making it become a subject that people talk about, discuss, repeat and want to understand better.

That's exactly what Gomorrah did and after its publication, the Camorra could no longer be ignored, or ignore. Saviano appears unvexed as he says, "They thought they could crush me, this boy from their town, and in 48 hours it all would go away." After all, they had already murdered thousands of "inconvenient" citizens, had even shot dead a priest, Don Peppino (Giuseppe) Diana in his own church -- and gotten away with it. It was Don Peppino's violent death, when Saviano was just 16, that inspired his mission, to uncover a world most prefer to leave buried under the tons of illicit garbage, trafficked drugs and dirty money at the heart of the Camorra.

"It's important to realize that mafias don't kill you with lead and TNT. They manage, sooner or later, to murder your credibility."

He continues, "When Don Peppino was killed, within 24 hours the Camorra circulated rumors that he had been killed as a result of his affairs with women, and that he was storing guns." Saviano is not immune to this character assassination and points me to the countless YouTube videos of kids from Casal di Principe who, when asked about Roberto Saviano, hurl a variety of insults at the cameras in dialect, call him "a sewer, an assassin, a junkie, a liar who has destroyed our town."

While Saviano may have been stripped of his freedom, he retains his impeccable credibility nonetheless and he has not stopped living. What could have been time spent with family and friends, he spends in the company of his armed escort and great books, reading favorite authors like Curzio Malaparte, historians like Tony Judt and Walter Benjamin and the Greek philosophers. Simple things we take for granted, like shopping for Italian groceries on Arthur Avenue or taking a walk alone through the streets of Williamsburg, are his biggest luxuries.

Saviano's secret sojourn in NYC and his stint at NYU were organized with the help of Scholars At Risk. Oriana Fallaci once said that all who come to NYC are "fugitives" and Saviano confirms this by saying "New York is a city full of people who are escaping from horrible realities." While at NYU, he taught under a false name, his students were sworn to secrecy by the university and not a single mention appeared on Twitter or Facebook of this heroic writer's presence in the Big Apple. In this age of endless updates and Internet chatter, the schools -- he was briefly at Princeton as well -- appealed to what Saviano calls the "student code of honor." In fact, no one heard of Saviano's presence in NYC until his appearance at Zuccotti Park on Nov, 19, for a speech in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

While Saviano sees what he calls "the arrival of General Winter" as OWS's biggest challenge, he reflects on this movement he earnestly calls "beautiful." He says:

For me the day I spent in Zuccotti Park meant freedom, it was the first time I dropped my alias and became Roberto Saviano again, which was important enough; but even more, OWS is a movement that gathers and celebrates diversity, where democrats, republicans, Hasidim, atheists and religious youths are all united in their belief that the economy is destroying the basic rules of democracy.

The September 11th Anniversary was another eye-opening moment for Saviano because "in Italy we never talk about the hundreds of Italian-Americans who lost their lives during the attacks." What struck him was when, during the ceremony, a woman read a sentence written in English, then spontaneously cried out in Italian, "Laura, I miss you so much, you are always in my heart!", to her deceased daughter. Saviano never stops surprising me, this man who, in Gomorrah, writes sentences like, "In war, it is not possible to love, to have ties, relationships, because all can become an element of weakness."

And yet, Saviano's own strength seems to lie in his ability to feel, to love his Italy, his world and so much so that he's given up his freedom for it all. To those critics who may have thought Gomorrah to be Saviano's debut novel and swan song all rolled up into one, he's since written Beauty and the Inferno (which won the 2010 non-fiction European Book Prize) and is a look at his life living under constant protection. Last year he also co-hosted the record-breaking TV show Vieni Via Con Me (Come Away With Me), an exposé on today's Italy, whose wild success Saviano attributes to "a special moment in time, which may never come around again, when Italy needed stories, not altercations."

While he chose a different road, Saviano profoundly understands why today's youth are drawn to the mafia, in the deeply personal way of someone who shares their birth place and life experiences. The rules of sex within the Camorra don't differ much from the rules of other international crime cartels. He says:

Sexuality is a fundamental aspect of the mafia's rational, everything is about being macho and that's how they get the young boys to feel like a 'mafioso'. Because in the beginning the money's not so good, they end up spending twenty hours sitting on a scooter...

...but they can get the girls, being armed and attractively dangerous.

"Undeniably, the world of criminality is a fascinating one," he admits, "and to deny its seductiveness is useless; it would be like playing their game."

He chooses three words to describe himself "melancholic, I don't know how to find a little bit of happiness in my life; empathetic and passionate" but then adds "diffident, these days I don't trust anyone. No one... "

He misses the blue sky of his beloved Napoli, his summers spent at Paestum, across from the Temple of Poseidon, and if he could pick any place in the world to pass an afternoon, he would go to the atmospheric Borgo Marinaro. His taste buds crave "il soffritto," a robust meat sauce which he swears is "divine" over some spaghetti. He loves the light of NYC, which felt more like home than any other place he has been to lately, and admits he may miss Washington Square Park once back in Italy.

After our talk, I wander the streets of downtown Manhattan with newfound insight, thanks to a man who has only called this city home for a couple of months and yet understands it so much better than me. Finally, I get what Saviano means when he admits "I like the kind of literature that overwhelms me, rather than that which helps me evade" because I know after this morning spent in his company, and his book Gomorrah, I will not be able to think of anything else, for a long time to come.

Images of Roberto Saviano at Zuccotti Park by © Umberto Nicoletti

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