Roberto Saviano is a marked man. After writing Gomorrah and publicly denouncing the bosses of the Camorra, the organized crime network that dominates the Italian city of Naples and the surrounding region of Campania, Saviano began receiving death threats. When he turned up recently at the trial of a Camorra member, the accused shouted at Saviano to pass on his best wishes to Don Peppino, a priest who had been murdered. Saviano now lives in an undisclosed location, under constant police guard, after Umberto Eco warned on public television that he would be murdered like the anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino if the state didn’t step in.
Saviano’s transgression in writing this savage and extraordinary book wasn’t simply to identify the Camorra’s bosses and their enablers. It was to break an unstated compact, a web of complicity that entangles politicians, businessmen, Mafiosi, judges and journalists and enriches many who participate. This unstated agreement has survived the corruption scandals of the 1990s, which centered on bribes paid to Italian politicians and destroyed the major political parties of Italy. It insinuates itself throughout Italian politics and business, not so much an active conspiracy as a tacit consensus that you shouldn’t rock the boat by pointing at others’ indiscretions and shady relationships. After all, someone else might in turn point their finger at you. And if you’re honest: well, nobody’s entirely honest, and even those who are can be smeared.
Subsisting in a dank climate of collusion and corruption, public conversation in Italy is a tangle of circumlocutions. Nothing is ever stated directly. Italian newspapers regularly print politicians’ speeches verbatim, but it’s often impossible to tell what they mean to say. The speeches are composed of innuendos, obscure denunciations, defenses against charges never precisely spelled out. They seem less intended for the public eye than for an unseen audience, an imagined shadowy elite composed of the small number of people who actually know what is going on.
Investigative journalists–even the best ones–exhibit similar pathologies. They use nicknames coined by insiders to refer to prominent politicians and ministries, and they frequently hint that they know much more than they can tell. Scandals are never fully described or resolved; instead, they always point to even wider scandals that will forever remain undisclosed. The result is a pervasive cynicism among newspaper readers. The Italian language even has a word, dietrologia, to denote the belief that everything important happens behind the scenes, away from the public eye.
Saviano, who has written frequently for La Repubblica, a highly influential left-of-center newspaper, and its newsmagazine, L’espresso, clearly detests the system that has given rise to dietrologia. He opens Gomorrah with a shockingly direct image of a foul secret erupting in public view–a container full of corpses that broke open as it was being loaded onto a ship docked in Naples. “The hatches,” Saviano explains, “which had been improperly closed, suddenly sprang open, and dozens of bodies started raining down. They looked like mannequins. But when they hit the ground, their heads split open, as if their skulls were real. And they were. Men, women, even a few children, came tumbling out of the container. All dead. Frozen, stacked one on top of another, packed like sardines.” The bodies were those of Chinese immigrants who had worked in Italy’s hidden economy and were being shipped back to their home country for burial.