Lunch With Roberto Saviano

Four years after the publication of Gomorrah, the Naples-born writer lives in hiding.

Having arranged to meet for lunch, I am told to wait in front of a central landmark at a certain time. The time passes; I am about to call when a car detaches itself from the traffic and shoots toward me. A man gets out, the bulge of his pistol beneath his short coat, says, “Lloyd?,” apologizes for the delay and opens the back door of the car. His colleague drives as we race back into traffic and through the city to a hotel.

Two cars with police escorts are parked outside. I am taken in, down a corridor, into a white, windowless room with a little table in the center set for two, a flower in a vase. A luxurious cell. By agreement—pressed on me courteously but insistently—I cannot divulge the name of the hotel here, nor even the city.

One of the police escorts waits with me: He says he decided to join the Carabinieri in his native Sicily “because there’s nothing for the young there: Some of my friends joined the black economy.” Once he had passed a check done on his parents and grandparents—they were apparently untouched by crime or Mafia—he was sent to the mainland, spent some time in uniform, then volunteered for escort training (“though I knew it was more dangerous”) and was detailed to guard Roberto Saviano.

It is four years since the publication of Gomorrah, the Naples-born writer’s description of life under the Camorra, the Neapolitan crime syndicate. Part journalism, part reportage in the first person, part autobiography, the book is a hybrid. Vivid flashes of observation are juxtaposed with bitter denunciations of cruelty and indifference. Federico Varese, professor of criminology at the University of Oxford and one of the world’s foremost scholars of organized crime, says Saviano makes clear not just the brutality of the Camorra, but also the way they have their claws dug so deep into Neapolitan society (and far beyond). What made the book especially valuable, he says, is the way “he showed how they are useful to a section of the people: They provide credit, they allow investments in their drugs and other businesses and then pay interest; they will stamp on competition. And he didn’t just write about them as a local phenomenon: He showed how they are tied into global networks: he showed that they affect you and me.”

The book was a huge success—in Italy alone, a country with a relatively small reading public, 2 million copies were sold; and in 2008 an extraordinary film of it was made, directed by Matteo Garrone with amateur Neapolitan actors, some mere children. Saviano, still in his 20s, became nationally famous as a no-holds-barred hater of the gangs, a glimmer of light against their growing darkness. At the same time, it has meant that he has had to accept that he is a target for their wrath, that he has to live with the consequences of his actions.

He enters—slim, shaven-headed, a sharp, handsome but watchful face—and we sit. I gesture about the room: “This is how you live?” “This is how I live; all the time,” he replies. He has been living like this almost since Gomorrah was published and the Camorra said they would kill him. In 2008 an informer named Carmine Schiavone, a cousin of Francesco Schiavone, one of the Calabrian Camorra Clan dei Casalesi leaders, revealed details of a plan to blow up Saviano’s car as it was travelling between Naples and Rome.

It is, the 31-year-old acknowledges, a velvet prison: Gomorrah made him a rich man, while the state provides the round-the-clock surveillance. I recall a sentence from one of the essays in his latest book, Beauty and the Inferno, a collection of reflections on his life in hiding due to be published in Britain early next year. “I think of all the birthdays I have spent—anxious, sad, alone—since being forced into hiding to live with a police escort.” He smiles, sadly. He must move constantly, from flat to flat: As others in his position have found, once neighbors discover he is there, they complain and ask him to leave. The white cell in which we are to be served a delicious lunch is at once reward and punishment.

Yet in the outside world into which he cannot venture unprotected, the front pages are full of Saviano: his book, his journalism and now a television program. Vieni Via Con Me (Come Away With Me) is a two-hour, interview-based program on issues of contemporary importance, filmed at an undisclosed location surrounded by security, and Saviano’s main role is to deliver a monologue of nearly half an hour, straight to the camera, on a subject of his choice. “It’s a slow talk,” he says, “certainly not the kind of thing you’d normally see on TV, especially not on Italian TV.”

An early episode, in which he claimed the southern clans now held sway over large parts of the economy of the north, caused uproar. The show, on the state TV channel, RAI 3—traditionally a protected space for the left and thus not under the influence of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, but with generally low ratings—got 8 million viewers on its first airing, and 9 million on its second. I congratulate Saviano: He is proud, saying it was RAI 3’s biggest audience since its creation in 1979, then instantly qualifies this achievement, saying: “But the hatred it has caused! From the political class. It’s a hatred you see everywhere in Italy—toward those who stand up and try to counter the prevailing climate. Really, a hatred.”

Saviano describes this reaction as la macchina del fango, “the mud machine,” a phrase that has caught on in Italy. As our first course arrives—the choice has been made for us, a delicious risotto with prawns, served with a light white wine—I ask him what he means by it. “It is the instinctive reaction, not just of politicians but of the society. Look how [Giovanni] Falcone and [Paolo] Borsellino [the anti-Mafia procurators murdered by the Sicilian Mafia in 1992] were treated—they were blamed, vilified, because their actions showed up the indifference of the political class and of society.”

For Saviano, second only to his loathing of organized crime is his fury about a subject Borsellino referred to in his speech at Falcone’s funeral, two months before his own—”the foulness of moral compromise, of indifference, of … complicity.” Saviano says it is the tactic of the powerful “to confer legitimacy on those who conform, to encourage or even initiate the workings of ‘the mud machine’ to those who threaten their rule.”

The waiter, deferential and a little nervous, is back soon with the main course: sea bass wrapped about a filling of chopped vegetables, then steamed in canisters and served in two little columns, with small potatoes. Saviano, who has been animated for the first part of our meeting, with a ready smile and laugh, now lapses more often into short silences, his answers shorter, his eyes downcast. I ask him to talk about his family and friends but he declines to follow me there. He suffers from depression; his style of life intensifies this. His fame and the courage he showed in achieving it has opened doors and introduced him to an Italian—and world—cultural elite: But they have also robbed him of the ordinary activities of a young man. He talks, as he has in the past, of leaving Italy for a more secure location, where “the mud machine” will not contaminate him. I ask him whether, as some speculation has it, he will enter politics. “No, certainly not. It is not because I think all politics and politicians are venal: Certainly, some are corrupt, but I know many who work as well as they can to improve the country. But writing is what I am.”

He acknowledges, however, that he has been taken up by the Italian left: His show is on the leftist channel, much of his journalism is for La Repubblica, a centre-left daily. Yet he is not a natural or ideological leftist. Among influences he mentions in conversation—he studied philosophy at university, his reading is wide and he has fewer diversions from books than most—are the anarchist Errico Malatesta; southern writers he thinks unjustly neglected, such as the anti-fascists Gaetano Salvemini and Giustino Fortunato; conservative German writers Carl Schmitt and Ernst Jünger, and even pro-fascist authors such as Ezra Pound and the Italian Julius Evola. Yet he describes himself as a liberal, while admitting “in Italy the liberal strand is weak and thin; it was crushed between the two great forces of Christian democracy and communism.”

He knew from an early age, he says, that he had to write, to bear witness to the criminality about him. His upbringing in Naples was in a middle-class household, headed by his father Luigi, a doctor, and his Jewish mother, Miriam. Yet all about him was the Camorra, a sprawling, clan-based criminal fraternity with roots at least 200 years old. They control the milk and fish industries, the coffee trade, and more than 2,500 bakeries in the city. They also control waste management and battles over control of this lucrative trade have sporadically seen rubbish pile up on Neapolitan streets over the past three years.

As an adolescent, Saviano saw his father severely beaten for assisting a Camorra victim: The “rule” was that such a person should be left to die. His father, however, professed respect for the men of power, counseling his son to be strong, like the Camorra bosses. More influential may have been an anti-Camorra priest, Don Peppino, who gets a chapter in Gomorrah and who was killed by those he denounced. Saviano remembers the priest telling him one who opposed the clans had to be “there to accuse and to testify … [using] the word with its only defense: speaking out.”

Saviano has followed that advice, and it has given him his extraordinary prominence. He is strongly there in everything he writes; and now, still more strongly, in his TV show. “I think writing of the kind I do must make an impression because it is a narrative, which is how people are engaged in it. The story is carried not just by the facts. It must be literature as well as fact.”

His writing has catapulted him into the upper aristocracy of letters: Invited to a ceremony two years ago at the Nobel Committee in Stockholm, he met the writer Salman Rushdie, who incurred an Iranian fatwa for his “blasphemous” 1988 novel The Satanic Verses and for years had police protection. Both writers gave lectures on “Freedom of Speech and Lawless Violence,” and the older man told Saviano that he should, in time, leave his velvet prison in spite of the risks or, he said, “Your enemies will have achieved their aim. Their aim is to have you dead. And you will be dead—not physically but mentally and morally. You cannot do as you wish; you cannot live fully. They have killed you.” Recalling this Saviano says: “This was a revelation for me then: He was right, and I’ve learned he was right.”

Like Rushdie, who now lives relatively openly, and the Somalian-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who still lives with security after anti-Islamic “blasphemies” in her 2006 memoir, Infidel, and her strong anti-Islamist campaigning, Saviano continues to rub salt in the wounds of his enemies by his insistent, personal force. And like them, he also suffers not just from the malice of those who work or fall into step with the mud machine, but also from the faintheartedness of those who wish him well. He talks of safe houses that had to be abandoned because of the protests of frightened neighbors (as well as the courage of anonymous friends and even strangers who extended hospitality); and he says he has enemies on the left as well as the right, who regard his anti-Mafia writings and campaigns as “excessive,” even anti-patriotic.

On the day we meet, those parts of the main Italian newspapers that are not exercised by Saviano and his TV show are signaling the crisis of the Berlusconi government—provoked, as in the past, by scandals with young women to whom the prime minister has allegedly offered hospitality and “protection.” More seriously for him, this is now accompanied by a falling public trust on the part of citizens who appear to no longer believe in his ability to bring success to the economy. “Berlusconi is finished,” says Saviano flatly.

In the first episode of Vieni Via Con Me, the famous comic Roberto Benigni tells a Mafia joke against the prime minister: Mocking a Berlusconi hint that the rumors about his private life were an indication that the Mafia were plotting against him, Benigni asked if the Mafia were now using pretty young girls instead of guns and bombs and imagined the premier returning home one night to find three girls in his bed, and shrieking: “The Mafia are after me!”

For Saviano, the program, mixing solemnity and mockery and attracting record audiences, is an overdue sign of a civic revolt. But his eyes remain downcast; and he must move on, to rehearsals for the next show. At once a hero of his time and a victim of his country, he smiles, shakes hands, leaves our luxurious cell, and the escorts close about him.

This article originally appeared in the Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.