[en] Deconstructing the public image of Roberto Saviano

Roberto Saviano has become an international icon of Italian struggle against Mafias. His most famous book, Gomorrah, can be found in bookstores in almost every corner of the planet while the movie inspired by it brought to an international audience the harsh image of a forgotten country, those slums in Naples where a fine line divides life with death. His narration of such a complex and delicate issue, together with his innovative writings and TV shows, has progressively contributed to draw the attention of national media on one of Italian darkest sides and has urged the Italian Government to take new and more vigorous actions against Mafias. His denunciations have cost him the loss of personal freedom: like his predecessor and model Salman Rushdie, Saviano has been living under police protection since 2006: the dire consequences of his personal exposure against Mafia have therefore turned him into a symbol, both nation-wide and globally.

While his public figure became the icon of an ethical fight against criminal organizations based on the respect of laws and on the figure of new responsible citizens, in various occasions his political stands have been harshly criticized by Italian social movements which progressively questioned Saviano’s public role.
In October 2010, he expressed his pro-Israeli government views and defined Israel as a ‘country of freedom and acceptance’, thus attracting harsh critics by many Palestinian activists, including Vittorio Arrigoni (the pro-Palestine activist kidnapped and killed on April 15 2011 by a Salafi group). Arrigoni answered Saviano with a video message directly from Gaza.

A couple of months later, after the students’ rally in Rome held on December 14, 2010, Saviano took a strong position against the riots invoking for the isolation of the ‘violents’ from the rest of the movement. In his article (published on “La Repubblica”), he claimed that “each violent act has been a supporting vote for Berlusconi’s government. The helmets, the sticks, the burnt cars, the scarves covering your faces do not belong to those who are trying by any means possible to show a different Italy;” he also argued that the rise of the Black Bloc can be seen as the beginning of a new “strategy of tension,” similar to what happened in the 1970s.

Students’ organizations supported instead the unity of all voices marching in Rome and called for other analytical frames than the dichotomy violent/non violent ones. Since then Saviano’s relations with Italian movements became controversial. His opinions continue to be largely heard among various sectors of Italian population, however some of his political stances showed his scarce understanding of social movements internal dynamics. His today talk at “Occupy Wall Street” [yesterday, Editor’s Note] has therefore generated the necessity to deconstruct Roberto Saviano’s public figure and to put his speeches into perspectives.

Particularly it is important to highlight the limits of Saviano’s theoretical assumptions when analyzing international organized crime and as deriving from it of governments’ definitions of terrorism. In his ongoing investigation about the global phenomenon of drug trafficking, for example, he underestimates the ideological stands underpinning the ‘war on drugs’ and the way words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ have been used instead to legitimate military interventions and neo-colonial projects in various countries of the world from the middle-east to Latin America. His attempt to provide a structural explanation of the illegal world, from Italy to Mexico, from Colombia to Afghanistan, clashes with the many grey areas one can find on the ground when analyzing such phenomena. Above all he forgets the importance of contextualizing ideas and practices of the ‘State’ in very diverse historical and cultural settings and, as emerging from these uneven relations, of Mafia type organizations. His unpopular political stands seem to be rooted in his attempt to find a general coherence between the Italian fight against Mafias, which made him famous, and supposedly similar struggles in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, this proved to be impossible, wrong and counterproductive.

A seminal author for Saviano is Pierpaolo Pasolini, a famous Italian writer, director and journalist. Pasolini’s neorealism is a fundamental source of inspiration for the young Neapolitan writer who also implicitly quoted him in the last pages of “Gomorrah”. In particular, Saviano refers to a well-known article written by Pasolini in 1975, in which the writer declared his awareness of the obscure plots shaping Italian politics during the after-war decades. The beginning of that article, “Io so” [“I know”] has since then become commonplace among the left-wing Italian authors engaged with “civic poetry” or other forms of political denunciations.
More recently, Saviano’s analysis of the students‘ march in Rome seem to be rooted in a Pasolini’s famous poem for the battle in Valle Giulia in Rome in 1968 (“Il PCI ai giovani!”) where Pasolini manifested anger against the students for their violence against police men. In his verse, Pasolini claimed that students belonged to bourgeoisie, whereas the policemen they had attacked were to be regarded as the true embodiment of the proletariat; however, all those who have later applied this frame to other protests or rallies have failed to acknowledge the meaningful changes that have taken place in the Italian society in the past few decades.

Since then, Italian analysis of streets demonstrations have suffered of simplistic interpretations of the phenomenon of violence during collective actions and all mainstream narrations of these types of events share the common attempt to isolate the rioters or ‘violent’ people from the rest of the persons marching. By doing this, in recent years they mostly failed to interpret important political and social changes that were taking place in Italy. In the last decade Italian political life has been polarized around the figure of Berlusconi who came to embody the only evil of the country for most of the oppositions parties. As the students’ movement has instead demonstrated, such a simplistic vision of Italian complexity has hidden a mounting and profound social discontent of certain sectors of the population, which was then emerging on the streets. For many Italian social movements, not only did Saviano fail to interpret this anger; he also proposed mainstream analyses that disappointed many of his activist readers and followers.

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One Response to [en] Deconstructing the public image of Roberto Saviano

  1. Tom says:

    I find your critique of Saviano lacks clarity. I get the point about Palestine which is straight forward but how does he missread the global struggle against organised crime organisations? What is your exact point about denouncing the black bloc and the violence they inflict upon others? I suspect your critique is the absent analysis of popular responses to the current regime of neo-liberal governance and its grave consequences for ordinary people.

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