|BEAUTY AND THE INFERNO
Roberto Saviano (www.robertosaviano.it)
Translated by Oonagh Stransky
MacLehose Press (www.maclehosepress.com)
If, like me, you’ve gone all this time not knowing who Roberto Saviano is, here’s the nutshell version: in 2006 Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist living and working in Naples, Italy, published Gomorrah. Part journalism, part literary novel, it details the workings and business dealings of the Camorra criminal organisation. Since shortly after publication, Saviano has had a price on his head, and has been living under protection in various undisclosed locations.
Beauty and the Inferno is a collection of essays and articles which, with a number of exceptions, have been written since the publication of Gomorrah. The book is split into five sections of roughly-related essays. The first and third sections (SOUTH and BUSINESS) deal directly with the Mafia, and it is these sections that showcase Saviano at his passionate best. His writing is urgent and angry – at the criminal organisations that rule his small corner of the world with an iron fist, and also at the people of Italy for their apathy which, he believes, is one of the key reasons the country is in its current state.
The second section of the book (MEN) is a series of profiles – and, in some cases, obituaries – of men (and one woman) who have affected Saviano in some way, and who he holds in high esteem. Here are stories of men who have defied all odds to live a full and rewarding life, men like the footballer Lionel Messi and the pianist Michel Petrucciani. Here also the tale of Saviano’s meeting with the man Johnny Depp made famous in the movie Donnie Brasco.
The fourth section (WAR) looks at the depiction of war in literature and the big screen. Saviano provides us with in-depth views on the novel that provided the source material for both Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, as well as a brilliant piece on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300, and the subsequent film of the same name. The final section (NORTH) is perhaps the weakest of the book. Three of the six essays in this section were written earlier in Saviano’s career and the difference is immediately obvious. Prolix and unwieldy, they are saved only by the section’s bookends: it begins with an essay about Saviano’s address to the Swedish Academy – the home of the Nobel Prize for literature – coupled with the speech that he gave; and ends with a piece about Anna Politkovskaya, a woman – Saviano’s Russian counterpart in many ways – killed because of her writings about the conflict in Chechnya. This section is ostensibly about writing, and the power of literature, and gives some insight into why Saviano continues to produce essays like these.
Saviano has a distinctive style, never more apparent than when he is talking about the Mafia. Let’s not forget: this is a man who has given up any chance of a normal life – he is surrounded by bodyguards twenty-four hours a day – to let people know what is happening to his country. Anger is the most prevalent emotion here, but this is far from the rant that it could well have been. Most of the essays feel like very good thriller writing, in that they leave the reader breathless and wishing for more. Saviano is old beyond his years; reading Beauty and the Inferno it is sometimes easy to forget that this is a man barely into his thirties. And he has an important message, one aimed directly at the people of Italy, but one which applies indirectly to many other countries.
There are some parallels with the articles of Chris Rose, whose 2006 collection, One Dead in Attic – a compilation of his Times-Picayune columns – is a chronicle of life in New Orleans following the massive destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Rose shows the same anger for the corrupt government in his adopted city, and the apathy of the people of New Orleans and America. Both men have the same underlying message: “don’t let me be the voice in the wilderness. We can change this, but we all need to pull our weight.”
Beauty and the Inferno is a tough read, but an important book that deserves an audience; Saviano has sacrificed too much for this book not to be read. It’s a good thing for him, and for the English-speaking world, that publishers like MacLehose Press exist and thrive, and bring such important literature to a wider audience.