Novelists Paul Auster and David Grossman appeared together last night on Italian television in a show of solidarity with author Roberto Saviano, who for the last three years has lived under police protection after receiving death threats from the Italian criminal organisation the camorra. They join a growing list, including Salman Rushdie, who have appeared in public to support the young Italian writer.
Also appearing on the special edition of che tempo che fa, a popular weekly current affairs & arts program, was Indian novelist/journalist Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City – Bombay lost and found, who placed Saviano’s best-selling book Gomorrah in an international context
“If Dostoevesky were writing today he would write about the Russian Mafia that dominates cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow. In cities like Napoli or Bombay, things emerge from the underground and it’s our duty as writers to shine a light on this, not because we’re enamoured with organised crime, but because nothing can be told of these cities without looking at the undergrowth.”
Mehta’s comments mirrored some of Saviano’s own, as he pointed out the mistake people make when they presume that the problem of the camorra (and Mafia) is a local issue, something that has always existed in the south of Italy – as if some kind of genetic problem. Saviano’s book works precisely because he joins the dots between Macro-economic forces like globalization and de-regulation, and how criminal organisations innovate and become the invisible hand guiding the markets. His skill as a storyteller/journalist has led to Gomorrah selling over two-million copies worldwide, and to a succesful film (read the TMO review of the book here). All of which has increased the risk he faces. Last year evidence came to light that suggested the camorra had stepped up its efforts to murder the author, bragging that he would be dead by Christmas.
New York novelist Paul Auster said of Gomorrah, “I was very impressed by it. For a first book by a young novelist it’s brave, courageous, and beautifully written. It opened my eyes to a world that I didn’t even know existed.”
Israeli author David Grossman, asked by the show’s host Fabio Fazio whether there was a similarity between Saviano’s situation and that of his own , living under constant threat, and whether that situation produces by necessity a certain type of literature, responded:
“People always try to compare different types of tragedies, but I’m not sure they’re comparable in this case. What is comparable, though, is the reaction of people living under fear. When you live under terror, when you live under fear, there comes a moment when you realise that things never change, that there’s paralysis. And it’s exactly in that moment that some abandon themselves to despair and apathy, to a growing void, and there are forces that take advantage of this void, of your apathy. […] When I read Roberto’s book, I felt the same energy that I, and my Israeli colleagues feel when we say enough. Enough is enough. These things shouldn’t happen. We musn’t continue collaborating with this apathy. We mustn’t subjugate ourselves to the vocabulary that governments try to impose upon us, or armies – this fear. It’s precisely from this feeling of protest that a literature emerges, of rebellion against – not collaboration with – fear. “
Saviano, asked by Grossman whether he had hoped to write a literary or journalistic work, responded
“I wanted to write a literary and journalistic book, a non-fiction novel. That it could have the proof of a documentary written like a novel. That was my hope, to put things together in a style that would touch people like a novel, like a story, like a life, but with the facts, the figures, the percentages, the inquests, the names and addresses.
I was inspired as well by something that, strangely, Philip Roth said. He was asked who he thought the greatest writer of all time was – he was expected to say Dante or … – but instead he said Primo Levi, because he was the only one who brought all his readers to Auschwitz, not that he had explained Auschwitz, but that he had brought them there.”
The role of literature and art in the real world was further addressed when Saviano was given the opportunity to ask Auster a question.
Saviano: “You once said that you create art because the world is imperfect. Do you still think that, and has your art, somehow corrected some of that imperfection?”
Auster: “No. I feel each time I read my books that I’ve failed. I try my best, and that’s why you write more books. It’s like Beckett said: ‘fail better’. I feel that’s the most we can aspire to as artists.”
The full encounter can be seen (in Italian) online here