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Author of mafia exposé lives in spotlight – and gun sights

Roberto Saviano says he would be giving in to mob power if he left Italy because of the death threats 'Gomorrah' has brought him.

By Irene CaselliCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 24, 2008

Dangerous insight: Roberto Saviano's book, 'Gomorrah,' about the Neopolitan mafia, has gained him fame, fortune, and a 24-hour body guard because of death threats.




The first people Roberto Saviano sees every morning are his bodyguards – the three Italian policemen who pick him up in a bulletproof sedan, drive him to the gym, or take him on errands. They haven't left him alone since "Gomorrah" – his fierce critique of the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra – hit best-seller lists in October 2006, bringing fame, fortune, and some powerful and ruthless enemies.

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But today, because of international and British laws that don't permit him the usual retinue of government bodyguards here in London, he's been entrusted to me – 135 pounds of journalistic muscle. Mr. Saviano doesn't speak English, and I – a native Neapolitan, myself – do; so his agent thinks I'm some sort of protection for him, and I laugh half-heartedly when the agent jokes about me being his bodyguard for a day.

I accept the task as coolly as I can, but in the back of my mind I'm wondering if I might end up between him and a hit man. I'm hardly relieved when, cautious but confident, Saviano walks out of his hotel wearing a dark coat, unmissable Italian sunglasses, and a dark scarf pulled up to his wool coppola cap. Nor am I comforted when the taxi driver, who seems to have been instructed not to breathe the name Saviano, calls out "Car for Mr. Roberto."

But as he cheerfully sidles into the back with me, it's his sunny disposition in spite of it all that cuts the tension. He peels off his hat and glasses and jokes about how conspicuous he looks wearing them in London.

This is our second day together, and maybe having a fellow Neapolitan interviewing him puts him at ease, but he chats freely as if we were old schoolmates with catching-up to do.

Saviano seems refreshingly laid back and down-to-earth for a 28-year-old who's sold over a million copies of his book in Italy alone, has been published in 33 other countries, is the only Italian on the New York Times and Economist Best of 2007 book lists, and, more important, for someone whose life is under constant threat.

And he isn't scared, either.

"They'd never kill me here in the UK," he says. Also, he's in the spotlight now and it wouldn't be the right moment for the Camorra to kill him, he seems to think.

It turns out I was more worried than he ever was.

• • •

Despite the publicity shots that always portray him as serious and pensive, Saviano actually laughs a lot, especially about himself and his Mafioso looks: "If I didn't look like a proper Camorrista, the book would have never done this well."

He's right, at least about his appearance. He has the dark Mediterranean look, is short (just 5' 5"), slim but moderately well-built. He doesn't have much hair, but his huge brown eyes sparkle. With the coppola cap and the sunglasses, he looks like any dodgy guy back home. And he can talk like one too, though mostly he speaks a clear and clean Italian with a Neapolitan twang.

But it's not only the looks and vocabulary that Saviano shares with the subjects of "Gomorrah." Raised in Casal di Principe, a town of 20,000 north of Naples, home to a powerful Camorra clan, Saviano stumbled across his first murdered body as a teen on his way to school. It's in the same town that he learned about the power of affiliation and belonging – when he'd ride his bike to nearby towns with his friends and scare other kids away by simply saying, "I'm from Casale."

"Corleone for people in my town is like Disneyland," he says, comparing the Sicilian Cosa Nostra town of "The Godfather" with the less publicized but more thriving towns of southern Italy's Camorra. "I grew up in a cutthroat reality."

Saviano's personal accounts, police reports, and trial evidence make "Gomorrah" an unprecedented description of that reality. It tells how the System (the name Camorristi use to refer to themselves) profits from drug trafficking, clothes manufacture, waste disposal, and public work contracts and feeds off the endemic problems of Naples – youth unemployment (40 percent), waste management crises, and political corruption.