Illustration by Jacob Everett
For almost eight years I’ve lived under police protection because of a book I wrote. I was 26 years old when I published Gomorrah, which recounts the story of the Camorra, the Mafia from Naples, the land where I was born. I wanted to be able to write about its entrepreneurial power. In reality, the Mafia is not a coppola (a flat cap) or a sawed-off shotgun. It’s not Michael Corleone. It’s business, it’s commerce, it’s a social order that opposes the law. I decided to convey all of this. And I decided to describe these things in a narrative, using first and last names. I never imagined all that would happen later, the multitude of problems that would arise from the book.
I still remember the day that I returned—free for the last time—by train from a literary festival in Northern Italy to Naples’s central station and was met by the military police. They put me in an armored car. I didn’t talk. I kept my gaze on my feet as if I had been arrested, though they were saving my life. They said to me, “Sir, we’re sorry, but we must put you under protection.” I believed that it would be for a short time—they even assured me, “Sir, just a few weeks, and then everything will be like before.” It’s been almost eight years—nearly a quarter of my life—and the trial against Antonio Iovine and Francesco Bidognetti—the two Camorra bosses accused by an anti-Mafia prosecutor of delivering a death threat against me through a letter read by their lawyers during a trial—will end this fall, maybe.
At this point, I can hear the questions: Why should Mafia bosses hate someone who writes? What did I uncover? And above all, now that I’ve uncovered it and published my findings, wouldn’t killing me be nonsensical? In fact, wouldn’t killing me just confirm every terrible thing people already believe about the Mafia?
Criminal organizations are terrified not by writers but by readers. That is why the slaughter of journalists by criminal organizations around the world has never stopped. The internet collects everything, so mobsters are not afraid of information about their activities—it’s all going to get out there anyway. There are judges and police to investigate, arrest, and sometimes convict them, and they’ve always taken law enforcement into account. Such things they are willing to accept. What they won’t accept, what makes them fearful, is a public full of readers who begin to understand organized crime, who talk and share information with one another, and who eventually advocate for change. Cultural pressure, political pressure, a demand for transformation—that’s what frightens Mafia bosses. The most dangerous thing that a journalist—a narrator—can do is put together pieces, find new, valid theories, and recount them.
Since my book came out, the question that I get the most is, “How do you live when you’re condemned to death? You’re not afraid?” Fear, if it lives with you every day, ceases to be fear. It becomes familiar, then it stops being hostile, and then you try to figure out how to relate to it, hide it, keep it by your side, nurture it. I don’t water the soil where the plant of fear has rooted. I let it dry up. The fear that dries up but doesn’t die is an asset: It doesn’t permit you to lower your guard. I keep it dry, but not dead, next to me. I try to make sure its roots live. I must remind myself about fear in order to be afraid.
In the land where I was born, they have killed many people. When I was a kid I would go to see the murdered bodies. They made me feel big, already an adult. I learned to recognize how they were killed. From the cadavers’ wounded hands, I understood that they had covered their face with their hands. It’s an instinct. No one believes that the flesh of your hands can save you from the slug of a 9-millimeter or an AK-47, but instinct comes first. Just as someone driving full speed into a wall lets go of the steering wheel in the last second to cover his face, a person about to get shot in the head does the same thing. Later on, I learned that smells tell you many things: If you smell the odor of rotten fish near a murdered body, it means that he ate fish shortly before dying. If you smell the odor of sour garbage, then he ate fruit or meat. You smell the strong food odor when the person was shot in the stomach and many times in the chest. From the piss and shit around a body, you can tell someone died in agony. When they shoot at the legs and the abdomen or at the chest and the bullets don’t immediately hit vital organs, the body has time to be afraid and piss and shit itself. And then you see rigor mortis of the dick. What shocked me as a kid was seeing these ridiculous, obscene postmortem erections that spilled out of the shorts of people killed during the summer. And it is common to die during the summer because the public is paying less attention. They also kill during the summer because people go out more often, and even if you’re shut away, hiding due to fear, the heat forces you out of your den.
I hope, if it ends like that for me, I don’t end up dying in the street with a thousand eyes above my face, asking how I am, whom to call, or—worst of all—saying that everything is fine. I always thought, looking at these bodies, that it would be better to put an end to it quickly, in an isolated street, you and your soul. Dying alone just as you lived: alone.
I began writing about the Camorra to take revenge on them. I believe that it is the best way to return all the evil that they have done and continue to do—how they poison the land with waste trafficking, destroy the coast with building violations, and dominate each and every part of people’s public and private lives. I tried to respond, to speak up and tell as many people as I could about it.
I was certain that I had done it with my writing, that I had made words into weapons. I had succeeded in forcing them to react. The light that I turned on brought arrests and drew TV cameras from all over the world. But at a certain point I began to wonder: If my work destroyed me, would it be worth it? Was it worth it now, with seven military policemen around me 24 hours a day?
Living in a country eager to maul anyone who doesn’t compromise himself is complicated. Italy loves to purge itself of blame by placing it on something else. As a result, the country cannot tolerate whoever finds a way to expose its contradictions, point to the wound. Mafia bosses know that sooner or later they will be killed or sentenced to life in prison. They have no alternative. They take on their responsibility, and this makes them unique in a country where no one ever takes responsibility for anything. It’s paradoxical, but they become authoritative in the eyes of the people from these areas. They pay for their power.
You understand that it is time to leave your country the day that you feel that not dying becomes blameworthy. You hear a hushed litany: Weren’t you supposed to be killed by the Mafia? You’re still alive? Having succeeded in surviving a death sentence becomes suspicious. If you are alive, then you don’t really scare them. One time the Nobel Prize Committee invited me along with Salman Rushdie to the Swedish Academy to talk about our experiences. He told me, “They will blame you for not being dead.” I didn’t believe it right away, but that is what happens.
So that is my introduction to you. This is who I am. In this space in the coming months you’ll find stories of Mafia and violence, reflections on the power and mechanisms that make criminal organizations the vanguard of contemporary capitalism. These words are proof that I am alive, and I intend to be so for a long time to come. Deep down, I’m privileged. For a writer it is rare that the words you write destroy your life; it’s rarer still that these same words regenerate you.
Translated from the Italian by Kim Ziegler
Roberto Saviano is an Italian writer and journalist. He is the author of Gomorrah and Zero Zero Zero. For the past eight years, he has lived under police protection because of death threats against him made by the Camorra. The film Gomorrah, based on the book, won the Gran Prix at Cannes in 2008 while the TV series, which premiered in 2014, has been distributed in 50 countries. Follow him on Twitter.