Violence stalks ‘Gomorrah’ author

He spends each day looking over his shoulder, wondering if they are going to kill him for what he wrote. He’s lost contact with friends; he describes his existence as living “in a cage.”

Author Robert Saviano has been under police protection since 2006, when his harrowing nonfiction book, “Gomorrah,” blew the lid off Naples’ powerful mob, the Camorra, widely regarded as a bigger, and older, organization than the Sicilian Mafia.

And now, three years later, the bodyguards, the armored cars, the safe houses, it’s all starting to get to him. “I’m now in Barcelona and they make me change hotels every night,” a weary but gentlemanly Saviano, 29, said by phone, through a translator.

The book, originally published in 2006 in Italy, has sold 2 million copies in dozens of languages and served as the source material for the critically acclaimed film of the same title, which is currently playing in L.A. theaters. It has also produced death threats from the book’s subjects, which is why Saviano remains in hiding. Compared to him, the poet Ovid, exiled from 1st century Rome, got off easy. Even “Satanic Verses” author Salman Rushdie has told Saviano that his own years hiding out -- from the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa -- were not this grueling.


“It’s simply a living nightmare,” Saviano said. “I don’t know when this will end or, more importantly, how it will end.”

Saviano’s feelings for the book that’s taken his freedom are complicated. “I must say, I don’t regret writing my book -- I would do it again. But I must confess, I also have a lot of hatred toward my book.”

“Gomorrah” takes its name from the biblical city of sin and for its resemblance to the name that the Neapolitan mob acquired in the 18th century; it is thought to be a combination of the words “capo,” which means boss, and “morra,” an Italian street gambling game.

Saviano, the son of a doctor, grew up in a town near Naples that was full of the Camorra’s “businessmen.” He saw his first mob corpse at 13; a year later, his father was badly beaten by the Camorra for calling an ambulance for one of its victims. When he was 16, the Camorra killed a priest he knew for comparing the mob to the biblical residents of Gomorrah.

As a young adult, Saviano felt rage growing inside, and after getting a philosophy degree from a university in Naples, he came to see how deeply entrenched the Camorra was in Campanian life. Every job he took -- assisting a photographer who shot at mob weddings; unloading boxes at the port -- brought him in contact with the organization. “I came soon to realize that everything around me was tied to that criminal power,” he said.

At the funeral of a 14-year-old girl, who died after getting caught in Camorra crossfire, he decided he needed to write the book. He spent five years on the docks, on construction sites, in sweatshops, to research it.

As detailed in Saviano’s book, the Camorra runs both legitimate and criminal operations, enlisting everyone, including kids, thugs and psychologists, and has a hand in all kinds of enterprises: the baking of bread, the disposal of dead bodies, the disposal of toxic waste, the selling of cocaine and, like mobs everywhere, the assassination of rivals. The group has incredible power throughout Italy. Organized crime in Italy reportedly takes in more than 100 billion euros annually. “This means,” Saviano said, “that the Italian state is announcing that the single greatest source of income in Italy is the Mafia. This means that the economies of the Mafia organization are the avant-garde, way ahead of the Italian economy.”

Ideas -- and rage


Director Matteo Garrone’s cinematic adaptation of the book, with its raw, verite style and absence of the voice-over and sociological exposition that a more conventional filmmaker would have provided, is quite different from the book, which feels driven by both ideas and by the author’s rage.

“The movie is faithful to that reality in the way that I related it,” said Saviano, who also worked on the screenplay. The book, as he sees it, is about the economic network -- “the stench of money” -- while the film is about “faces.”

The book is both energetically reported and almost hallucinatory. The opening image, of frozen dead bodies, looking like mannequins, falling from a shipping crate, is hard to shake. Saviano’s most important influences were Primo Levi and Truman Capote, and all writers “who talked about the concentration camps.”

“I believe that the way to truly understand, to get to the bottom of things,” he writes, “is to smell the hot breath of reality, to touch the nitty-gritty.”


That raw intensity may have been too much for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The recent snubbing of the film -- a 2008 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner and Italy’s submission for the Oscar’s foreign-film category -- has him frustrated.

“The real problem is that the academy’s choice of excluding us helped all of those powers in Italy that did not want the book to be written, that did not want the film to be made,” he said. “It is not a big deal for me personally, but it strengthens these people.”

Winning awards has never been his reason for telling this story. “Since I was born they have killed 4,000 people just in that immediate area,” Saviano said. “Writing about those things meant taking my revenge on the damage they’ve done to the land.”