I’m a huge admirer of Roberto Saviano’s remorseless denunciation of the Neapolitan Camorra Gomorrah. When I read it some years ago I was blown away by its incendiary prose, its moral fury and the almost reckless courage of its author. Literary reviewers often refer to ‘brave’ books from writers who face no risks, but what Saviano did was truly astonishing. Camorristi, like mafiosi, Pablo Escobar, or Mexican narcos, often like to think of themselves as philantrophists of a sort, who plough money back into the communities that serve them by building schools and hospitals etc.
Saviano demolished that mythology completely and revealed the gangsters of his native city as vicious parasites who preyed on their communities and transformed whole neighborhoods into criminal anthill empires regulated by ruthless violence, fear and patronage. He also showed how its activities intersected seamlessly with the globalised ‘legal’ economy of the 21st century, that relies on its services for disposing toxic waste or providing sweat shop labour for Milan fashion houses.
This is the kind of world that Michael Woodiwiss depicts in Gangster Capitalism, but Saviano wrote as a novelist and a journalist. He also wrote as an insider, who grew up in the Neapolitan neighborhood of Caserta, and knew and understood the people and the places he wrote about, and knew the risks involved in writing about them.
The book became a huge success, boosted by an exceptional film which fully did justice to Saviano’s dark vision. Many writers attempt to ‘speak truth to power’, but more often than not power simply ignores them. In 2006 Saviano received his first death threat from the a Camorra boss. Since then he has lived under 24-hour armed protection. Yesterday, in a powerful and moving article in the Guardian, he described a grim life alternating between police barracks and hotel rooms where the curtains are always drawn and he is unable even to go out onto the terrace; where he is unable to go anywhere by himself or go anywhere at all without telling the authorities beforehand, because
‘Doing anything spontaneous, just because I feel like it, would be ridiculously complicated….This life is shit – it’s hard to describe how bad it is. I exist inside four walls, and the only alternative is making public appearances. I’m either at the Nobel academy having a debate on freedom of the press, or I’m inside a windowless room at a police barracks. Light and dark. There is no shade, no in between.’
Saviano also describes the irony of his predicament, in which
‘I realised the dream of every writer, the dream most of my colleagues wouldn’t dare imagine. An international bestseller. A huge audience. But everything else is gone: the chance of a normal life, the chance of a normal relationship. My life has been poisoned. I’m suffocated by lies, accusations, defamation, endless crap.’.
Some people might ask whether a book is worth such a price, especially given the generally limited impact that books have. Saviano’s moral outrage burns off the pages of Gomorra. He wrote it as a young man, with a young man’s fearlessness, and you don’t write like this unless without the belief that writers who tell the unvarnished truth will be listened to. These expectations have only been partly realised, in his opinion:
‘Since I wrote Gomorrah, there’s a greater understanding of the mafia, and in Italy successive governments have been shamed into investing in fighting organised crime. They can’t pretend they don’t know what’s going on any more, and public opinion won’t let them off the hook. If you pushed me, I’d say the perception of the problem has changed radically. This is the power of the non‑fiction novel, the kind of book I’ve tried to write. To tell true stories with the rigour of a journalist and the literary style of a novelist.’
This seems a small reward for having effectively lost one’s freedom and the possibility of a normal life, but I can’t help but admire his enormous courage and integrity. Saviano was moved to write his piece by the Paris shootings, and argues that ‘Europe has rediscovered that writing can be dangerous.’
This is partly true, and it has certainly been a long time since writers were considered dangerous to powerful individuals and institutions in Europe. It was different once in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia say, where writers were considered sufficiently important to the point when even the silence of Isaac Babel was interpreted by Stalin as non-support and therefore worthy of death.
But it has been a long time since writers in Europe risked death or persecution because of what they wrote. Some might cite Salman Rushdie as an exception, but the tragic chain of events that placed Rushdie in a very similar situation to Saviano and led to the murder of one of his translators was partly due to the fact that Rushdie did not think he was taking any risks at all when he wrote his book, and clearly did not see the Khomeini fatwa coming.
Saviano says that ‘The deaths at Charlie Hebdo should make anyone who isn’t trying to change the world feel guilty. It’s easier to say the satirists brought it on themselves than to look in the mirror and confront the image of our own inertia.’
I agree that anyone who isn’t trying to change the world should feel guilty, and not only writers. But I can’t see how Charlie Hebdo’s racist cartoons were intended to change the world for the better, even if those who drew them believed it. Some argue otherwise, and would have us believe that Charlie Hebdo’s democratic ‘equal opportunity’ provocations were intended to uphold free speech and secularism and break the power of ‘Islam’ or Islamic fundamentalism over European society.
The former Charlie Hebdo employee Oliver Cyran reached very different conclusions, in an essential article published in 2013 which excoriates the magazine’s racism and its ‘obsessive pounding on Muslims’ since 9/11. As Cyran points out, Charlie Hebdo was not attacking the powerful, but a marginalized and victimized minority that was already subject to routine levels of contempt and vilification.
The magazine took risks in doing so, because there are politico-religious extremists and clerical fascists who act in the name of Islam in France and across the world that threatened to respond to these provocations with violence. That was why the magazine’s editor Stephane Charbonnier was placed under the same 24-hour protection that Saviano also received.
So yes, Charlie Hebdo, like Saviano, became ‘dangerous’. But as outraged as I was by the murders, I cannot take inspiration from their actions. I certainly don’t argue that they ‘brought it on themselves’, but I can’t hail their racist provocations as an expression of moral courage. For me they were at best an expression of free speech that was misconceived and fundamentally wrong-headed, and at worst they were an expression of contempt and mockery that was not aimed at religious fundamentalism, but at Muslims in general .
Saviano, on the other hand, used his pen to attack a powerful criminal institution whose members don’t like to be criticized or even mentioned in public expose its inner workings to the world in such a way that they could not be ignored. Perhaps that too was a kind of folly, given the terrible price that he has paid for a book that he himself believes has done little more than contribute to a mere change of public perception.
For me however, it’s a considerably more admirable folly than Charlie Hebdo’s, and even if we accept the need for a world in which the written world should never be ‘dangerous’ and met with knives and bullets regardless of the intentions of its authors, we ought to be aware of the difference.