Chronicle of a Soul: Roberto Saviano

“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” The old adage might be a fit translation of what many Italians thought when Roberto Saviano received death threats from the Camorra (the Neapolitan ...

“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” The old adage might be a fit translation of what many Italians thought when Roberto Saviano received death threats from the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia) after the publication of Gomorrah in 2006. Very few anticipated that the book, an unsparing yet lyrical first-person narrative of Naples’s criminal underworld, would sell millions of copies worldwide and be translated into 52 languages. Blending fiction, investigative journalism, and eyewitness accounts, Gomorrah is a fascinating hybrid of established genres. After the success of his first book, Saviano became a global literary star; his life changed dramatically, and not for the good. As is well known, since his denunciation of the Camorra, Saviano has had to live under strict surveillance by the Italian police, forced to separate from his family and give up most of his private life.

But Saviano is impervious to common sense. Having found himself in this abysmal hole, he continued his passionate battle against criminal organizations, broadening the scope of his inquiry. ZeroZeroZero is the next chapter in Saviano’s personal saga, a globetrotting exploration of the world cocaine trade—the extent of its exploitation and brutal violence, its web of international political connections, its money laundering on a massive scale, often in the shadow of the world’s most prestigious banks.1 Unable or unwilling to maintain a critical perspective on the harrowing facts he is witnessing, the author is open about the autobiographical nature of his approach: “I should have kept a distance I wasn’t able to keep. That’s what Anglo-Saxon journalists often say to me: Don’t get involved; keep a clear gaze between your subject and yourself. But I’ve never been able to. For me it’s the opposite. Exactly the opposite. To have a primary, penetrating, contaminated gaze. To chronicle not the facts, but one’s own soul.” Here Saviano showcases how the unique experience he narrates in his book—his own experience—resists the contours of any one defined genre, with its respective focus. Why, then, did ZeroZeroZero elicit such criticism, especially among professional journalists, if the author announces so clearly the hybrid and autobiographical character of his book, and its distance from investigative journalism?

Saviano’s new book is structured by accumulation. Horrific stories about cocaine, featuring an array of protagonists from the entire social spectrum, are interspersed with more experimental short pieces. They range from a sort of rap about “coke” (“Wherever snow falls, coke is snow, / But you can also call it Florida Snow, / As Miraculous as a Miami snowfall”) that might not be out of place in a slam poetry contest, to a long, painful series of short, police-style reports revealing the unexpected ways narco-traffickers have devised to ship cocaine through ports and airports worldwide. Still, after 380 pages packed with facts, numbers, hyperbole, and names gravitating around the cocaine business—from the infamous Colombian cartels to the Russian mafia, from the African Atlantic ports where la blanca is stocked and shipped to Europe to the unprecedented brutality of Mexican organizations like Las Zetas—what impresses most in this modern epic is not Saviano’s investigative zeal but his obsessive insistence on self-analysis. In the course of penetrating this global illegal trade, Saviano also conducts an uncompromising inspection of his personal encounter with contemporary life’s “heart of darkness.” The end result is the confession of his own failure, of his impotence and sense of utter solitude in the face of the sinister power of organized crime.

<i>$52 million of cocaine seized off the coast of Florida</i>. Photograph by Coast Guard News / Flickr

$52 million of cocaine seized off the coast of Florida. Photograph by Coast Guard News / Flickr

Of course, it was not Saviano’s self-diagnosed powerlessness to rid the world of organized crime but his apparent departure from the standards of professional journalism that prompted such major criticism when the book was published in the US. In the New York Times, Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowen challenged the effectiveness of Saviano’s idiosyncratic blend of journalistic investigation and fiction: “What in this sometimes compelling, often tedious assortment of parables, poetry, dramatic monologues, cautionary tales and horror stories is true, and what is fantasy? The cool answer, I suppose, is that we shouldn’t care.”2 In the Daily Beast Michael Moynihan went much further, accusing Saviano of plagiarism, and doggedly providing evidence from sources the Italian author does not acknowledge in his book.3 Other reviews were more favorable: “What Saviano lacks in academic rigour,” writes Misha Glenny in the Financial Times, “he makes up for with an unrivalled passion in describing the damage that organised crime inflicts on society.”4

The perceived lack of investigative rigor and the complete absence of a bibliography doubtless upset readers used to different standards, profoundly affecting their appraisal of Saviano’s forbidding epic. And yet Saviano is unequivocal about his intentions in the book: not to lay out the definitive facts and numbers of the global cocaine trade but to chronicle “one’s own soul”—his own. Or rather, to narrate his voyage to the end of the night following stories, facts, and numbers of one of the world’s biggest businesses, supporting the conclusion that “contemporary capitalism is in no position to renounce the mafia” (as he writes in the foreword to Anabel Hernandez’s Narcoland, a journalist who courageously and painstakingly charted the power of narco-traffickers in Mexico).5

Again, though, more striking than the worthiness of Saviano’s observations about the interconnectedness of global capitalism and the drug trade is how they assume the meaning and features of a personal failure. “For me,” he admits at the end of ZeroZeroZero, “the word ‘narco-capitalism’ has become a ball of cud that continues to swell. I can’t swallow it; every time I try it goes down the wrong way, and I risk choking to death.” The book abounds with comparable corporeal images. Similar conclusions illuminate the uneasiness of the author—an uneasiness become obsession, physical pain, and moral malady. ZeroZeroZero is not only an exposé of narco-traffickers’ appalling power over the global economy, but also a haunting experiment in autobiographical writing. In this it might be likened to Don DeLillo’s celebrated Libra, in which the main plotlines—the fictional account of a personal investigation into JFK’s assassination and of the life of the plot’s scapegoat, Lee Harvey Oswald—are accompanied by reflections from the fictional narrator on his impossibility to find the truth, to call his historical research done, while new, confusing data on the president’s assassination keep piling up.6

Having found himself in this abysmal hole, Saviano continued his passionate battle against criminal organizations, broadening the scope of his inquiry.

Less sophisticated than DeLillo, Saviano collapses all such plotlines into his own persona: “I have spent years studying and chasing the trail that leads out from Scampia and Casal di Principe, to broaden my horizons, to let my investigation take in the entire world.” Remarkably, in the original Italian, Saviano does not use the word “investigation” (indagine) but “obsession” (ossessione), a fact that should prompt in us a radically different interpretation of the whole book. Indeed, a comparison between the Penguin Press edition of the book and the original Italian text, published by Feltrinelli in 2013, reveals the absence of many significant passages from the English version. The cut passages feature Saviano’s personal reflections or comments; they do not affect plots and episodes, but they inspire a more nuanced reading of the text. The missing sentences might seem superfluous or even unseemly in the context of investigative journalism, but they all contribute to the sense that ZeroZeroZero should be interpreted first and foremost as the chronicle of Saviano’s soul.

Among the many passages I might draw on to support this thesis, I turn to one that comes at a key point in the narrative. After the introduction and two chapters dedicated to Colombian and Mexican drug lords, Saviano stops the narration and unleashes one of his many self-reflective passages (passages that will become more and more frequent as the book nears its end), at the onset of a chapter titled “Ferocity Is Learned”: “For years I’ve been asking myself what the point is of dealing with shootings and death. Is it really worth it?” After a personal rumination on the meaning of his work fighting criminal organizations, in which he describes a profound uneasiness, Saviano concludes with an argument against facile conspiracy theories: “The world is more interesting than a conspiracy between sects and secret agents. Criminal power is a mixture of many elements.” The final line sounds vague and banal, and yet the original Italian goes on as follows (here in italics):

Criminal power is a mixture of many rules, suspicion, public power, communication, brutality, diplomacy. Studying criminal power is like interpreting texts, like becoming an entomologist.

And yet, in spite of all my efforts, it is still not clear to me why one decides to work on these stories. Money? Fame? Positions of power? Career? All this is infinitely less than the price to be paid, than the risk and the unbearable muttering that will attend your every step, everywhere you go.7

Here is another revealing passage that is not present in the Penguin edition:

Telling the stories of criminal power allows one to browse buildings, parliaments, people, like they were books. You pick up a building made of concrete and you imagine it is made of thousands of pages, and the more you can browse those pages the more you can read how many kilos of cocaine, how many bribes, how much illegal labor are present in that structure. Imagine you can do this with everything you see. Imagine you can browse everything around you. At that point you will be able to understand a lot, but there will come a moment when you will want to keep all the books closed. A moment when you will no longer be able to bear to browse such things.

Further references to Saviano’s inner struggle and the temporary solace that writing gives him are eliminated.8 Only a few lines further down, however, the fundamental conclusion of Saviano’s meditation—the kernel of the entire book—is deleted as well. The Penguin edition reads:

You also have to accept the burden of being … a pathetic human being who has overestimated his strength merely because he’s never run up against its limits before. The truth is that there’s really only one reason for deciding to stay inside these stories of drug traffickers, criminal entrepreneurs, massacres. To know that what you find out won’t make you feel better.

The Italian original reads instead:

You also have to accept the burden of being … a pathetic human being who has overestimated his strength merely because he’s never run up against its limits before. Words give you a strength that is considerably greater than what your body and your life can offer. But the truth, obviously my truth, is that there’s really only one reason for deciding to stay inside these stories of drug traffickers, criminal entrepreneurs, massacres. To flee from any consolation. To establish the complete inexistence of any balm for life. To know that what you find out won’t make you feel better.

Here, then, Saviano is not generalizing about his dealings with organized crime; he is, rather, circumscribing his writing to his own personal experience. “My truth,” he seems to say, is that my writing is the only way “to flee from any consolation.”

Why did the American publishers of ZeroZeroZero edit Saviano’s book in such a way? Every translation represents an interpretation, and I believe that the fundamental decision made regarding this text was to translate it from one genre to another—from a seemingly unconventional novel to investigative journalism. The Penguin edition tried to preserve the original, highly idiosyncratic, and literary flare of Saviano’s text, but left out its extremes in order to appeal to the Anglo-American public and insert ZeroZeroZero into a much more codified genre. To my queries regarding the translation, Penguin Press editor Scott Moyers responded that “Roberto wrote a very ambitious book, which depends for its ultimate effect on the cumulative impact of its different modes of storytelling; there is a literary ambition here which is much different and frankly deeper than [what] most journalists attempt.”9

Saviano’s writing is gripping, hammering, obsessive, at times to the point of seeming redundant and self-satisfied. With his books, he is not looking for a reader so much as an accomplice. In doing so, Saviano follows the conventions of a long-standing Italian tradition of first-person autobiographical authors, from Dante to Petrarch, from Curzio Malaparte to Carlo and Primo Levi. Witnesses of unpredictable crises and momentous transitions, these authors interpreted historical events by narrating their own experience. For this literary tradition, autobiographical reflection becomes the standpoint for moral, political, even metaphysical inquiry. Falling all across the ideological spectrum and with heterogeneous results, they aspired to moral monumentality through an autobiographical writing in which the borders between fiction and testimony are blurred, impossible to determine once and for all. Regarding ZeroZeroZero’s translation, Moyers himself affirmed the need in his editorial work “to try to be sensitive to differences in perspective and context between the two cultures.”10

In an article in response to his American critics, Saviano defines the book as a “nonfiction novel,” in the vein of Truman Capote.11 In Gomorrah he instead invoked poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, modern Italian literature’s figure of intellectual sacrifice par excellence, with whom Saviano shares an instinctive attention for corporeality and a keen sense of his own status as a public intellectual. The dire pessimism of Saviano’s autobiographical writing, however, brings his work closer to another, radically different Italian author: Primo Levi and his testimonial literature.12 Both Levi and Saviano respond to their detractors with a relentless drive to understand evil and the individuals who caused this evil to exist, and to thrive. Their literature investigates the rationales behind criminal acts, resisting facile outrage and consoling conclusions. Although Levi’s and Saviano’s writing styles are poles apart, the authors are both determined to intervene with their autobiographical writing in a cultural field—the Italian literary tradition—in which sophisticated hybrids of fiction and historical accounts are not pigeonholed as defective byproducts but constitute the timely continuation of a moral and intellectual dialogue with the past. Literary authority and memory of the past thus become sources for political action (in Gomorrah Saviano explicitly quotes Pasolini in this regard).

Autobiographical writers, Paul de Man observes, “are obsessed by the need to move from cognition to resolution and to action.”13 Such an obsession might appear alien to both the investigative paradigms of American journalism and Saviano’s own approach, and yet is instead thoroughly consistent with the long-standing tradition of the exemplarity of the “letterato” or man of letters. This tradition is still alive in a country like Italy, where the humanities are not yet at the periphery of the educational system. Saviano’s work betrays a deep yearning for exemplarity. In the hyper-modern multiplication of stories and voices on a global scale that constitutes Saviano’s novel, one is tempted to distinguish not only the negative epic of today’s interconnected world, but also the persistence of longue durée rhetorical tropes. The autobiography and eventual sacrifice of the letterato—what we would now call a “public intellectual”—acquire the special status of an exemplum, an illustrative story aimed at moving the audience. By intertwining artistic output and autobiography, the letterato aims to foster discontent with the political and social status quo and elicit a longing for community based on higher morals at odds with the present.

In ZeroZeroZero, Saviano is acutely aware of the position he takes with regard to his audience; his successful experience as a public speaker profoundly affects his storytelling. Quick to recede whenever his characters deserve central stage, Saviano’s autobiographical writing is nonetheless conspicuously shaped by the inextricable blend of political intervention, narcissism, and the profound sense of community that have always characterized the Italian literary tradition. The editing of the more personal pages in ZeroZeroZero’s English translation is not only an attempt to domesticate Saviano’s peculiar Italian accent for the American market, but also to tame his most overtly political aspirations. icon

  1. The book’s title derives from the purest form of cocaine available on the illegal market.
  2. Mark Bowen, “‘ZeroZeroZero,’ by Roberto Saviano,” New York Times, July 20, 2015.
  3. Michael Moynihan, “Mafia Author Roberto Saviano’s Plagiarism Problem,” Daily Beast, September 24, 2015.
  4. Misha Glenny, “‘ZeroZeroZero,’ by Roberto Saviano,” Financial Times, June 19, 2015.
  5. Roberto Saviano, foreword to Anabel Hernandez, Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers (Verso 2013), p. viii.
  6. Don DeLillo, Libra (Viking, 1988).
  7. Here and below, translation of text not appearing in the Penguin edition is mine.
  8. Generally speaking, a good deal of the chapters’ or paragraphs’ final sentences, in which Saviano concludes his stories with a personal reflection, are not translated in the Penguin edition.
  9. Scott Moyers, “Re: article on ZeroZeroZero and its translation,” email message to the author of this essay, October 15, 2015.
  10. Ibid.
  11. The title and summary line of the article in Italian I am quoting from are quite explicit in this regard: “Saviano: ‘I explain my method blending journalism and nonfiction’”; “The writer replies to accusations coming from the USA: ‘The means is reportage; the goal is literature.’” La Repubblica, September 25, 2015.
  12. Saviano has expressed his admiration for Primo Levi on many occasions. An audible version of Levi’s If This Is a Man read by Saviano is available in the Italian market.
  13. Paul de Man, “Autobiography as De-Facement,” MLN, vol. 94, no.5 (1979), p. 922.
Featured image: Roberto Saviano. Photograph by Marco Monetti / Flickr