PEN Atlas Q&A: Roberto Saviano

In 2006 Roberto Saviano wrote Gomorrah, the book exposing the Neapolitan Mafia that would change his life forever. Forced into a life under armed guard, he was the recipient of the 2011 PEN Pinter Writer of Courage award. In Zero Zero Zero, his latest book, he investigates the global cocaine trade. Here, he talks to PEN Atlas about drugs, money, neo-liberal capitalism, and the personal cost of speaking the truth.

Interview with Tasja Dorkofikis, PEN Atlas editor.
Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon.

Zero Zero Zero follows money and cocaine all round the world, presenting a global phenomenon in which organised crime becomes part of ‘the power dynamic of contemporary capitalism’. The book traces how the $400 billion generated each year by drug trafficking filters into the international banking system through money laundering, from Wall Street to the City of London. Can you describe how banks and other global players get involved? Why did you decide to focus your attention on cocaine?

The mechanism is very simple and is based on an established practice which is the same throughout the world: absence of control. For too many years the banking giants have failed to question where huge sums of money are coming from and why they are being moved. And when controls have been carried out, as in the case of Wachovia Bank, this is often because individuals have decided to do their duty. Martin Woods, a senior anti-money laundering officer in the London offices and previously a detective in the National Crime Squad, compiled so many Suspicious Activity Reports that he was hindered in his work by the same people who had commissioned the controls. Everything must start from the banks since it is their vaults that keep the money for criminal organisations, and it is from there that the modern democracies are being eaten away from within. And why I decided to focus on cocaine is easy to answer: it is by far the most profitable business for the criminal cartels.

It is a global story, but also very European. What is the effect of the cocaine trade on the UK, and in particular, on London?

The UK is a country of cocaine users in which the turnover reaches £6 billion a year, of which £1 billion alone for the 25 or 30 tons of cocaine imported. There are an estimated one million users, often very young, and one in ten people has admitted using cocaine at least once. And these are the official figures, therefore much lower than the real ones.

What is your view of contemporary capitalism and the way our economy works?

Generally speaking, I tend not to look back, but so far as the functioning of the economy is concerned, I’m afraid there weren’t enough antibodies to prevent the massive infiltration of capital from illegal trafficking. This has placed a terrible burden on the future economy. It is by overrunning and taking control of ever vaster spaces in the legal economy that criminal organisations leave no way ahead for the free market, the real one, the one whose lifeblood is competition, real competition. It is said the coca plant has its roots in South America and has its leaves in Europe. There is no separation, it is all connected: cultivation, processing and distribution.

You claim that cocaine affects all of us and many people, from lawyers to cleaners, use it to sustain the pace of their work. What are the figures involved? Do you think that the scale of this problem is growing?

The figure of 15 million users in the world doesn’t mean very much because this is an official figure and, in the case of illegal substances, there is a submerged area that is equal to if not greater than the figures in our possession. Cocaine is the preferred stimulant for anyone who needs to keep up a high level of performance and this is not just the case for particular categories but for anyone who needs to stay alert. On the other hand, the drop in prices makes it accessible to everyone.

Your book is very gripping and your style of writing very immediate and novelistic. One reads it almost like a thriller. Why did you decide on this writing style?

Yes, I’ve certainly thought about it. For a long time I was undecided about the form to give to Zero Zero Zero. Then I decided to follow the path I took for Gomorrah of the non-fiction novel, as I feel that reality exceeds all imagination and I didn’t want to deprive readers of Zero Zero Zero of the thrill of reading stories apparently absurd but which have actually happened. I didn’t want there to be any doubts about how unbelievable reality can be. If I had used fictional names or had included unreal details, the power of reality would have ended up being compromised.

Your book exposing Gomorrah made you into a symbol of the universal right to freedom of speech but your life has been profoundly changed and your personal freedom hugely limited because of the risks involved. Would you make the same choice if you knew the consequences?

Absolutely not. The price I am paying, from every point of view, is too high.

You said in interviews that you mistrust everybody. You also said that you looked into the abyss of narco-trafficking and that now ‘the abyss wants to peer inside you’. How has this exposure to risks and to cruelty changed you personally?

It has made me a worse person. You begin not to trust anybody, not just because of the threats received, but also because you notice the suspicion of what ought to be the ‘right-minded’ part of society. I know the majority of people are on my side, they support my battle and appreciate the work I’m doing, but there’s a part who scorn every effort. Those who have not stood up, those who have not rebelled against the rules imposed by local criminal organisations, have turned me into a black sheep. Those who have not stood up, those who have not rebelled, cannot accept that someone else has done so. And then living under escort for so many years – it’s now been ten years – makes me a walking dead, but also someone who ought to have died and hasn’t. The most atrocious thing I often hear is: ‘If the criminal organisations really wanted to kill you then you’d be dead by now.’ This suggestion is atrocious because it admits by implication that these organisations are omnipotent and that any protection against their will has no sense. I, personally, refuse to imagine that a world really exists in which it is for them to decide who can live and who must die. The escort still has a sense: it is the state that is saying ‘I am stronger.’ And not a police state, but the state as a community, as people who rally to support those in danger.

Your research for Gomorrah has been very involved – you famously worked undercover at a mob-owned construction site and waited tables at a Mafia wedding. How did you do your research for Zero Zero Zero?

Life under escort has, on the one hand, made it more difficult to move about but, on the other, as a writer who is known and identifiable, I’ve been given access to a quantity of information that is rarely available to someone unknown. I’m becoming a sort of catalyst for stories; I’m contacted by ex-criminals, former drug smugglers, police forces, who tell me their experiences so that through me they can be brought to light. Most of my work now involves checking sources, carrying out the right research at local level, since I can no longer wander around aimlessly and choose the storylines I consider most interesting and useful for developing my ideas.

You believe in telling the truth and spreading information. How do you see the impact of your books on readers?

I believe in it deeply, and this is why I haven’t written fiction books. Every truth, of course, however objective it might be, is the truth of the person telling it. Naturally, the truth of a man under escort for almost ten years is the manic, claustrophobic viewpoint of a man with an obsession – an obsession that has ruined his life. Paradoxically those reviews written about Zero Zero Zero that get closest to the point are not the best ones. When I read criticisms of the style I think the journalist has understood exactly what he has read. My writing in Gomorrah was already an obstacle course, and now, in Zero Zero Zero it has become a cage, into which the reader agrees to enter even before reading the opening lines. Those who pick up my book know who I am: I’m not a writer and I’m not a journalist – I’m a spurious being who recounts what he sees filtered through his own eyes, which are now those of an animal in a cage.

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About the Author

Roberto Saviano was born in Naples in 1979. He is the author of the international bestseller Gomorrah, which has sold over ten million copies in fifty languages worldwide. The film adaptation of Gomorrah won the Grand Prix of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. He has been living under police protection since October 2006, following threats received from the criminal organizations that he denounced. In November 2008 Saviano was invited by the Nobel Committee in Stockholm to give a lecture on ‘Freedom of Speech and Lawless Violence’. Zero, Zero, Zero, translated by Virginia Jewiss and recently published by Penguin Press, is his latest book.

About the Translator

Richard Dixon lives and works in Italy. His translations of Numero Zero by Umberto Eco and The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso will be published in November; other translations include The Prague Cemetery and Inventing the Enemy by Umberto Eco, and Ardor by Roberto Calasso. He was one of the translators of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone.

Additional Information

Read more about Zero Zero Zero on the Penguin Press website and buy it from our book partner Foyles.

On Wednesday 1 July, intelligence2 hosted Roberto Saviano in conversation with Robert Collins about the war on organised crime. Full video footage and a podcast of the event will be made available here soon.

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