December 4, 2010


by Roberto Saviano
274 pages, MacLehose Press

Review by Pat Black

People are trying to kill Roberto Saviano. Like Salman Rushdie in the 1990s, he’s a writer who wakes up each morning painfully aware that it could be his last. The reason behind this is the words he produces, the truths they reveal and the fears they cause in his enemies: southern Italy’s organised criminals, the Camorra.

The journalist has to go around with 24-hour police protection and gets a bit jittery at every sudden noise thanks to his previous book, Gomorrah, a scathing attack on the Naples-based clans. These people routinely kill those with the gumption to stand up to their corruption – even police officers and the judiciary are fair game. For obvious reasons, Saviano can’t stay in the same place for too long, and God only knows what his family has to put up with in his stead for the sake of his art. We can imagine that life has become a little more precious to the 31-year-old with the long shadow of the Camorra blotting out the light.

Luckily for us, this awareness permeates the pages of Beauty and the Inferno, a collection of essays and journalism loosely connected by themes of truth, art and courage. His target is always the gangsters, and the scale of their power in Italy is absolutely frightening. They control all the drugs of course, but they also have a tight grip on things like building contracts and waste disposal – the latter leading to a public health scandal which Saviano helps expose. But there are also essays examining the careers of great writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gustav Herling and Uwe Johnson, as well as a review of the movie based on the Battle of Thermopylae, 300, and interviews with sporting superstars like Lionel Messi.

It may owe a lot to the translation by Oonagh Stransky, but part of this book’s great power is in its style and tone. Saviano makes some bold and fearless assertions about what constitutes freedom and beauty. Here’s an example from “He Who Writes, Dies”, a harrowing account of the life and death of Russian journalist Anna Politovskaya:

The power of literature lies in its ineffability. It can’t be reduced to a single dimension. It’s not just one thing. It’s not just news or information, sensation, pleasure or emotion.

There’s something about these statements that contain the ring of truth, of undistilled honesty, that very rare thing in writing. They have something of Orwell in it, but the passion is Saviano’s own. In reading this, I wondered at the propensity of American and British writers for being indirect in addressing love, fear, beauty and hatred. It seems that sometimes there’s a lack of emotional honesty in our writing, a readiness to cloak what we’re trying to say in irony. Saviano has no time to dissemble or equivocate; perhaps this is a side-effect of living with a gun against your head for simply telling the truth.

The best journalism has to do something very basic; tell you something you didn’t already know. With this in mind, the best chapters were “Playing It All”, the one on Messi, his examinations of cocaine and concrete as weapons in the Camorra’s armoury in “The Magnificent Merchandise” and “Constructing, Conquering”, a cute interview with Joe Pistone, or “Donnie Brasco” to you and I, and the aforementioned one on the Politovskaya murder.

In the Messi chapter, Saviano tries to claim the footballing deity as an honorary Neapolitan, simply because the Argentinian’s fellow countryman and similarly diminutive soccer genius Diego Maradona used to play for Napoli. In this chapter there’s something of the reverence of a little boy for sporting stars, and it gives us a nice sense of balance compared to some of his more heavyweight statements. But Saviano also points out that Messi was born a dwarf, and owes much of his career to Barcelona having paid 500 euros a shot for painful growth hormone treatments; even such a triumph of humanity appears to have been built on tragedy of a sort.

The cocaine and concrete chapters paint a depressing picture of corruption, big business and bloody murder. “The Magnificent Merchandise” outlines the pathways that “white oil” takes from growing out of the ground to disappearing up the nose of braying idiots who are the ruination of almost every night out you might care to have in the west. The building article is simply a scandal, drawing a line between massive government grants and mafia-controlled construction. And in “The Man Who Was Donnie Brasco” there’s a chilly rendering of a conversation between two dead-men-walking as they enjoy a meal and a few glasses of wine in an Italian restaurant. They’re afraid to laugh out loud for fear of attracting attention. And they are right to be afraid; the clans never, ever forget.

Why does Roberto Saviano do it? Why put yourself to all this trouble? Why risk not only your own life, but surely the lives of your family and close friends, too?

It’s all because of the words, he says; the power they have, the ability to cause fear in those who are feared. Because through words we can reach an absolute truth, and we can accept that there is right and wrong in the world, and we can try to do something about those who oppress us.

In the book’s devastating climax, the story of Anna Politovskaya’s life and death, he outlines what her political enemies were determined to do to her after she wrote about Chechnya and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. They threatened her. They followed her around and tried to discredit her. They poisoned her with a cup of tea – British readers will be familiar with the simple cuppa being used as a weapon by Russians thanks to the Alexander Litvinenko affair. There was another foiled plot to smear her by drugging her and then photographing her with a series of men in a brothel. Finally, they shot her.

Shadowy groups with very pro-government ideas tend to be a bit more forgiving with Russian journalists these days; now, those who report facts of a decidedly unpatriotic type aren’t shot, but can instead have their jaws smashed and their fingers cut off, so that they can neither speak nor type again. This is what they try to do to you, in the world’s darker places, for telling the truth, for standing up to criminality and intimidation.

In this book, Roberto Saviano shows you what you can do to fight back.

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