Roberto Saviano first broke into the world's line-of-sight not with his book, but with the film adaptation of it. Gomorrah takes a close look at organised crime in the South of Italy.
The film, a gritty adaptation by Grand Prix-winning Italian director Matteo Garrone, brings the book to life - giving faces to the people and the names that Saviano's book explores. For readers, safe in our armchairs and beds reading the book, nothing is too close. For those that were the unwilling protagonists in the documentary-like tale - it was a little too close. Ever since its release Saviano has had round-the-clock armoured guards, barely living in a hotel for more than a few days at a time to swerve the risk of a retributive attack on him.
In telling us the truth, opening our eyes to the life that he has made it a mission to expose - he's risked his own. There is no love, no family and no friends when you're barely in a city or town long enough to visit the local library - not that he'd be able to do even that. A born-and-bred Neapolitan, Saviano wrote the book as a way to counter the prevailing romantic narrative of the Southern gangster.
As a society, we hold these outcasts and outlaws in high regards. Their fight, to us, isn't really against your everyday people - but the police and government. That's two forces that people aren't particularly fond of, especially in certain places - especially in Naples where the code of omerta, or silence, is taught from the school-yard and carried with as reverence all the way to the grave.
From his earliest journalistic work in 2002, Saviano, in his early-20s at the time, was still regarded as an important voice against organised crime - he was always a firebrand writer willing to speak truth to power and as a result he had many ears in powerful positions - both in gangs and government.
The names that influence Saviano's intellectual worldview are varied. Anti-fascist politicians and anarchist writers like Gaetano Salvemini and Mikhail Bakunin sahrpened his will to take a grassroots approach to the formation and maintenance of power in Italian political society. Yet, his view is well-rounded as he cites well-known conservative writers like Julius Evola and Ernst Jünger as sources that he reads voraciously. The thread that runs through their works, like his, is the idea of being contrarion - of being brave enough to say things that won't sit well with powerful figures, but offers a necessary counterbalance to their well-perpetuated narrative.
The Southern Casalesi clan have issued warning on Saviano's life - a move that whilst bringing turmoil and necessitating a continual clandestine existence, has also given him his own level of notoriety. His statements on crime come from well-protected semi-public appearances to comments made in the shadows of Italy and Europe's darkest corners to vetted journalists. Taking on Italy's organised crime system would usually be enough for most writers. Many journalists, politicians and judges have been executed in their efforts to speak out against them, but for Saviano it seemed to spur him on. After Gomorrah came Zero Zero Zero, his creative yet scrupulously detailed indictment and insight into the cogs of the global cocaine network.
The status of anti-Mafia activist no longer fits Saviano's role in his fight against all of the organised crime he sees as infecting society. His problem is as much the gangsters that run these this, as the willful ignorance or indeed the more-than-willing aid that these criminals receive from global governments. In Zero Zero Zero we learn about the circulation of cocaine from ground to nostril - the effects it has and the characters involved.
As is often the case with life, it seems that if it were fiction it would be unbelievable. There's young cocaine dealers scooting around trendy Milan, selling the purest goods to the richest businessmen. But there's also female cartel leaders with a lust for blood than runs so deep she bathes in the stuff - quite literally. Kaibil soldiers are hired as muscle, guarding the cocaine and the bosses with their lives. Their own brutal stories are woven in. These are men who have completed weeks long military training looking after a dog the whole time. At the end, they're made to kill and consume the creature. Saviano spares no details.
It's these moments, stories so personal, yet illustrative of the sheer disregard for life (not just these soldiers, but almost everyone involved) that gives them the same magnetic and sordidly romantic appeal of his earlier stories of gangs in Italy. It's a horrendous love-story written in blood that we can't seem to put down.
Reading these stories is always uncomfortable. Not just because of the levels of violence, but because of the comfort. The comfort that these people seem to feel in comitting the crimes, but also the comfort with which crime lies in bed with governments. It's not and never has been news to people that governments around the world can be highly corrupt institutions - it's safe to say that this will always happen with size and power. No, the real pain comes from understanding something beyond the prominence of crime - but it's importance.
Without the money from cocaine, which is used to prop up and fund many parts of government, and the comfort in which the government utilise the War on Drugs as their own instrument - they would collapse. Not only governments though, it would be almost the entire global economy. Cocaine and other drugs play such a finely-tuned role in International Relations and in keeping the economic wheels spinning that, to take it away, would be to remove many Jenga pieces at once. The table that suffered all the weight of the broken pieces would be constructed of us - the people.
Like cancer thriving in an acidic environment, corruption thrives in an environment of secrecy. What I mean by that is institutions require our naivety to be able to continue to function. Our silence is a gift. Holding them to judgement, mounting continual pressure and forcing answers is the only way. Although we may be fighting a war of attrition, eventually their web of lies will become tangled, and it's all been worthwhile . Gomorrah has sold 2.5 million copies in Italy alone - that's 2.5 million people, plus the people they've talked to about it that are more aware about what is happening.
That's why we need more people like Roberto Saviano - truth's martyr. What he has given us is the most powerful tool to change the world - knowledge. In return he has some riches, certainly. But he has lost all freedom to spend them. Whole movements and religions have been built around one's willingness to unite in the face of one's suffering. Now is the time to unite. Now is the time to read these books and to make the world a better place. It's the least we could do.
“Around here keeping your mouth shut is not the simple, silent omertà of lowered hats and eyes. Here the prevailing attitude is “It’s not my problem.” But that’s not all. [...] The word becomes a shout. A loud and piercing cry hurled at bulletproof glass in hopes of making it shatter.”
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