Roberto Saviano: ‘I saw my first corpse in secondary school. It didn’t shock me’

The Gomorrah author on his new book about Italys teenage mafia leaders, why he risks his life for his writing, and the UKs shameful corruption

In 2006, Italian author and journalist Roberto Saviano published Gomorrah, an exposé of the organised crime network Camorra; since then he has had to live under police protection. The book was adapted for the big screen in 2008 and for TV in 2014. Other works include ZeroZeroZero, an investigation into the cocaine trade; his new novel, The Piranhas, a story about children’s gangs in Naples, is published on 20 September by Picador.

How did you get the idea for this novel?
It was such a powerful news story: children who suddenly became mafia leaders. Mafias have always employed muschilli – little mosquitoes – in minor roles. But for a few years, in Naples, kids aged between 10 and 19 were in charge: they decided the drug deals, the money laundering, the executions… I wanted to find out more.

Did you find some positive aspects in these characters?
Of course – these kids are highly talented. I interviewed the survivors in jail, and there was great humanity there. They managed zones generating up to half a million euros a weekend, selling weed, huge amounts of cocaine. Imagine a 15-year-old who has to import drugs, set a price, pay the police, pay a percentage to the locals to keep quiet. It’s like giving a 15-year-old the keys to a supermarket and saying: “Manage it.” Someone who can do that has great entrepreneurial spirit – if they’d had a legal opportunity they’d have been incredible businessmen.

What are their motivations?
None of them are doing it out of hunger. They’re pushed by a complicated reality where it’s almost impossible to make money legally: there are no decent jobs, unless a relative recommends you. So those with ambition are drawn to crime, even though they know they’re going to die: “If you die at 90, you die old news. If you die at 20, you die a legend.” Most of the kids the characters in the novel are based on are dead.

What was your childhood in Naples like?
I was born in ’79, and at the end of the 80s there was an incredible Camorra war – 4,000 dead, three or four a day. I saw my first corpse in my first year of secondary school. Since then I’ve seen dozens. They didn’t shock me. As soon as we heard of one, my friends and I would immediately go see it. It was a way of saying, “we’re grownups” – anyone who didn’t look at corpses was still a child. Once we saw a Camorrista drowned in milk, in a mozzarella vat. But for me it was unthinkable to be a Camorrista leader at 15. My family and upbringing protected me. These kids also have an idea of “everything, now” that my generation didn’t have. They live on Facebook and Instagram, boasting about their feats…

Did you feel a responsibility not to glorify this world?
This is something I’m often accused of, but I think it’s exactly the opposite. Criminals build their power on glamour, and you pull that apart not by denying it exists, but by showing what’s behind it: the years in jail, the consequences, the ridiculous theatre of it. Imagine a dark room. You go in, turn on the light, and see a corpse. It’s like blaming the murder on whoever turned on the light.

Do you think books have the power to change what’s happening?
We are constantly immersed in words; the problem is that words have no weight any more. The American president can one day say one thing about Russia, and then the next day overturn it with no consequences. Literature can return a specific weight to words. My battle with books continues, even though everything I’ve written has got me into trouble: Gomorrah when I was 26; ZeroZeroZero was, disastrously, found in the lair of El Chapo. Today, for Italy, it’s even more necessary – we’re in a dramatic situation where maybe books can do something. I’m not sure I’m going to win, but I’m sure this is the way to change things.

What do you find most worrying in Italy at the moment?
This is a dangerous government, which risks being the first clearly authoritarian government in Europe [this century]. Salvini’s words are close to the words of Orbán, of Putin. He based his whole campaign on attacking migrants, while never saying anything against the mafia, of which he understands nothing.

The word “fascism” should be used with caution, but when politicians like Salvini start quoting Mussolini (“so many enemies, so much honour”) is it appropriate?
I realise that the word “fascist” denotes a specific historical period, but there are some expressions, some hints, that bring to mind a continuity with fascism. We don’t have blood yet. In Italy, for now we don’t have night-time arrests, the murders of journalists, as is happening in Russia, Jordan, Venezuela. What we have is isolation, civil and legal attacks – Salvini criticised me [threatening to remove his police protection] as a minister, not as a person, which is unusual. [Salvini’s party] Lega is close to neofascism: from his ridiculous T-shirts to his choice of words, he draws on neofascist ideology, because he doesn’t have one of his own, only a generic street populism, not a doctrine. So the word “fascist” is perhaps too quick, too easy, but it’s not far from describing a genetic link.

What are your thoughts on the collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa?
In the past few years in Italy there have been several incidents in which infrastructure collapsed, crushing people, so there are clearly issues with maintenance. What’s not clear is whether people’s safety has been sacrificed only for profit or also for political gain. From the moment the bridge collapsed we’ve seen an unedifying political clash, which advanced like a steamroller over the entire nation’s mourning.

Would you ever go into politics?
Never. My role is different, and it’s possible only because I’m not a politician. If I were to run for office it wouldn’t be the same.

Do you get tired of being the person who has to comment on Italian crime and corruption?
[Laughs] Yes. It tires me to the point where I sometimes feel hopeless. I never manage to stay distant, so I’ve suffered a lot. I would sometimes like to not be who I am any more, to have a decent life, but I do it – some people think out of ambition, others narcissism – for honour. A word that fascists have plundered from us. For me, it’s an honour to fight those who are running the greatest defamatory campaign of recent years, against migrants. I do it knowing full well that it generates hatred, isolation, contempt. There’s no advantage: the easiest thing would be to stay quiet. But I go on.

Which writers or investigative journalists do you admire most?
I have a great respect for Turkish journalist Can Dündar. He was arrested for revealing in his newspaper [Cumhuriyet] that Erdogan was secretly taking part in the war in Syria. I followed Daphne Caruana Galizia’s work, and I’m friends with her sons. In life she was systematically vilified, and in death, the same people started to retract, to speak of a person full of dignity and courage. I’m on the side of whoever, when they write, knows they will pay a price – losing happiness, often freedom – but continues to write.

What do you think of Elena Ferrante’s representation of Naples?
Our cities are both protagonists of our books – Naples is never just a backdrop. But I’m not interested in telling the world about Naples, rather the world through Naples. The relationship dynamics in Ferrante’s works are emotional, so readers recognise themselves in them; I’m obsessed by how humans are crushed by power. That’s our difference. Elena Ferrante provided an endorsement for this book – something she’s never done – and it immediately generated interest. In America they asked me, how come Ferrante gave you this endorsement?

In May 2016 you said the UK was the most corrupt country in the world. Do you still think so?
Absolutely. I’m not sure why, but the UK thinks of itself as not particularly corrupt. It doesn’t have a political class that’s more corrupt than South America or Italy, and it doesn’t have a more corrupt police force than Greece or Morocco. But it’s the country with the dirtiest capital in the world. Because London has no financial rules: money laundering is the primary source of British financial wealth – the money from Russian or South American coke. And it’s all legal. Maybe that’s why Britain doesn’t see it as particularly shameful – creating an economic system substantially based on the absence of financial regulation. It doesn’t matter if it’s blood money, from arms trafficking, from drugs. When I spoke about this in the UK, the perception was that it was something marginal.

What do you like most about Italy?
An Italian would normally answer “food”, with pride. But, rather than food, I want to say that it’s Italy’s humanist tradition, knowing how to spend time together. We’re a country of emigrants. Every year the equivalent of the population of Verona leaves; the south of Italy is almost uninhabited. Italy can only be reborn from migrants, allowing the Mediterranean to have a single citizenship. I’m much closer to the writers of Tunis than London, Algiers than Berlin. It’s an aberration, that the south, the heart of the Mediterranean, can’t be a shared territory. Maybe that’s what I was saying: this capacity to be convivial. This is an Italian quality that rancour, Salvini, and the hell we’re living in still haven’t erased.

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