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Q&A: Italian journalist Roberto Saviano teaches seminar on criminal organizations

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For students in ITA 401: Economic Politics and Organized Crime, Italy is far from the land of Pisa and pizza. They have spent the semester studying the country’s bribing, drug smuggling, gun-toting modern Mafias and the economics that drive them.

Their instructor is Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist whose reporting on Italy’s criminal organizations has provoked death threats. Saviano’s first book, “Gomorrah,” describes the power and brutality of the Camorra, the crime syndicate that controls Naples.

“Gomorrah,” which was published when Saviano was 26, has sold over 10 million copies worldwide since 2006, according to his personal website. Its film adaptation, which he co-wrote, won the Grand Prix at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

Despite Saviano’s popularity, some Italians have denounced his books and accused him of defaming the country. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi denounced “Gomorrah” in 2010 as part of the “promotional support” that has revived Italy’s reputation for Mafia corruption, according to La Repubblica. Berlusconi later apologized for his comments.

In fear of reprisals for his reporting, Saviano has lived with a round-the-clock police escort since 2006. Authorities believe an attempt was made on his life in 2009, The Guardian reported.

“The system has brought the Italians not to trust their representatives anymore,” explained Italian professor Gaetana Marrone-Puglia, who invited Saviano to teach at the University as a visiting fellow in the Council of the Humanities. “Saviano stands out for addressing issues of public concern with integrity.”

Saviano first visited the University’s French and Italian department in fall 2011 while teaching a graduate course at New York University.

“What impressed me immediately was the way he connected to this young generation,” Marrone-Puglia said. To accept her invitation, Saviano turned down an offer to serve in the cabinet of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, she said.

Taught in Italian, Saviano’s course examines the social and political power of Mafia-style criminal organizations all over the world. Students read books by Saviano and other investigative journalists.

Sara Teardo, an  lecturer in the Department of French and Italian who sits in on the course to provide additional teaching support, noted that its political and economic emphases attracted students from a broad range of disciplines.

Elisa Dossena, another lecturer in the Department of French and Italian who provides support, explained that she and Teardo are there to help contextualize Saviano’s references for the students, mostly because he has never taught undergraduates before.

“You need to know something about contemporary Italy, and what is going on there,” Dossena said. “Sometimes he might say names of people or words that you might not understand if you didn’t read all the newspapers in the last five years.”

A French and Italian graduate student in the course said the students engaged well with the material, despite its inherent unfamiliarity.

“I think that Americans have a strange sort of fascination with the Mafia judging from the popularity of certain movies like The Godfather,” Natalie Berkman GS said.

Saviano’s 2013 book “ZeroZeroZero,” which describes the global cocaine trade, might be published in English next year, Penguin Press U.S. publicity officer Etty Eastwood confirmed.

The Daily Princetonian: Why did you choose to come to Princeton?

Roberto Saviano: I was first invited to visit two years ago by Gaetana [Marrone-Puglia] and the Department of French and Italian, and I liked it very much. And when they proposed that I come back, I was delighted. Gaetana was the first woman to be a full professor of Italian at Princeton. To us Italians, this is mythological. When she proposed that I come, it was a great honor. I did not have to think hard about it.

My life is very complicated — too complicated. They told me that Princeton is the perfect place to study. … When I found out I could teach here, it seemed like a new life.

DP: What is your next project?

RS: My dream is to found a permanent seminar on economic politics and the criminal economy. Through a literary, anthropological, sociological study of the illegal economy, you can understand how the economy works. Studying the criminal economy is fundamental, not only to Princeton students who study economics but the other disciplines as well.

DP: You call your books “non-fiction novels.” Some American critics think you have taken some liberties with the facts in Gomorrah. What liberties can you take in this genre?

RS: I do not quite know what type of liberties they mean. If my facts were not true, I would be constantly attacked for it. I do not take liberties with the facts. My facts are meticulous with respect to the sources that I have. I don’t make a bibliography because my bibliography lies in the pages themselves. I write, “according to the DIA [Anti-Mafia Investigations Agency]” or “according to the investigators,” or “according to young recruits in the Camorra.”

I use the methods of a non-fiction novel: I don’t invent things, but my point of view is different from a reporter’s. For example, a reporter covering a homicide cannot write about his own impressions, about irrelevant details. Instead, when I go to the site of a homicide, I pass over the body, and look at what is around it. If someone vomits, I ask those nearby, “How does it smell?” or “Why do you think this man was killed? To the journalists, I am a writer. To the writers, I am a journalist. So I am a hybrid, but the rigor of my information is fundamental.

Sometimes an informant [such as an ex-mafioso now working with law enforcement] can become my source — but always on-the-record-source whose testimony has been evaluated by a judge. I only use sources who have been verified by a judge. When I interview young recruits in the Camorra, they never tell me their names. They are anonymous. They tell me about their lives and experiences. But if they tell me the name of a Mafioso or a politician, I don’t consider it trustworthy, because it is not verified. The anti-Mafia commission is my fact-checking.

The non-fiction novel is still very suspect in Anglo-Saxon literature. This is despite the fact that most of my influences are Anglo-Saxon: Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, William Vollman, Michael Herr.

DP: You have said that you do not renounce “Gomorrah,” even though it has sent you into hiding. A few months ago, you told Spanish newspaper El País that “Gomorrah” has ruined your life. You said you wish you had taken the same stand without destroying your life. How could you have done that?

RS: By protecting myself. I should have written my book and then vanished. Instead, I promoted my book, as a challenge to the Mafia. I was told to write it, then go to Iceland. Instead, I wanted these stories known, so I could influence the reality. And this ambition, to change the reality immediately, is the most dangerous part. The fame of my book has forced the Camorra to take a position, and their position has made the book even more popular. More popular and more dangerous.

[When you think of Italy], you think of the Colosseum, the Renaissance, Michelangelo. My tradition is that of Guicciardini and Machiavelli: writing of cruelty, violence, outrage, infamy. Telling the harsh truth. Some accuse me of defaming Italy, but that is not what I am doing.

Corruption and violence are the overriding features of contemporary Italy. The country’s beauty is not negated by its corruption and violence. On the contrary, I think we would violate the Italy of Leonardo and Raphael if we speak only of the 16th century.

DP: A few months ago, a court found you guilty of plagiarism regarding some passages from “Gomorrah.” What do you say to those who find passages in your work similar to articles by other journalists?

RS: These are the facts: the first court acquitted me. The second court ruled that I had to cite sources. I’m appealing right now. Please note that the newspapers that have denounced me are the very same I have attacked in my investigative reportages. As for the publisher, he is someone who has been condemned for extortion in another case.

DP: Our readers would like to hear about your proposals to weaken the power of organized crime. You have suggested legalizing cocaine. Why?

RS: Today, we can see that every strategy to combat drugs has failed. In the U.S., the majority of incarcerations are for drugs. I see no solution but total legalization, beginning with soft drugs, and ending with hard ones.

I hate all drugs, even tobacco. I support legalization as a means to deprive the Mafia of its trade, not because I think men should be free to drug themselves. I care about cutting off the Mafia’s oil. With the Mafia and the illegal drug trade as the largest economy in the world right now, we can no longer take a moral approach to drugs. If we do, they win. We can take a lesson from marijuana in Uruguay. Uruguayan president José Mujica legalized marijuana, and the Mexican cartels [in the country] died out. For me, the first step is to legalize the soft drugs, then all other drugs. But I know this will never be realized because people are afraid. They think legalization will make drugs even more available to their children, though it is exactly the opposite.

DP: You have also supported Occupy Wall Street. What reforms do you suggest for the financial system?

RS: My presence at Occupy Wall Street was against safe havens for money laundering. If we do not have financial regulations to prevent money laundering, the Mafia will always win. The rules must change. These [havens] exist in Andorra, San Marco, Lichtenstein, San Marino, Monaco. The United States has been invaded by the Swiss banks, in addition to Wachovia Bank’s money laundering scandal.

DP: You have said that the loneliness of your life is the most difficult thing. Do you feel more or less lonely here at Princeton?

RS: It’s a strange thing. One part of my loneliness does not depend on my situation. It’s inside. And another part does. I feel quite well here because teaching is gratifying, especially teaching students from all over the world. It’s splendid. I escape my loneliness not only because I see other faces, but because I must strive to never take anything as a given.

The students in my seminar have a different background on this material. I cannot begin from a starting point common to everyone the way a literature professor can. When you take a course on French literature, much of the class will already know who Balzac and André de Malraux are. When you teach on the Italian mafia, the Russian mafia and drug cartels, there is no common background. Yes, each student has an impression based on some reading or some personal experience, but still, [as a teacher] you must find a common starting point. This is challenging, but also wonderful. It’s a wonderful way to escape my loneliness.

This interview was conducted in Italian.

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