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The “Piranhas” of New York: Beyond Hypocrisy, the Big Apple as seen by Roberto Saviano

A conversation in Manhattan with the author, who will present his novel “The Piranhas” (“La paranza dei bambini”) on September 13

According to Roberto Saviano, to write means to hurt, to go deep into the “wound of reality”. A wound that does not only belong to his beloved Napoli, but also to New York, hidden by the lights of Times Square and more than one veil of hypocrisy. We discussed literature, politics, Southern Italy and youth

Roberto Saviano welcomes us with a smile. A contained smile, but a warm one, which heralds his intention, as a writer, to deep-sea dive into reality and expose truths and dynamics few acknowledge. He does this in his books, on TV, and he keeps the same attitude in person. We meet with him at Bryant Park, the small but bustling patch in Midtown adjacent to the New York Public Library where he will present The Piranhas, the English translation of his Paranza dei bambini, on Thursday, September 13, at 7 p.m. Translating his book’s title into English, he says, was a challenge: “Translating it literally from ‘paranza’ to ‘boat’  would not have made sense.” Saviano sees the title The Piranhas — suggested by Jonathan Galassi, publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux — as “well-suited”: “Little fish, violent when they are in a group, very weak and lost when they’re alone.” Just like those kids who, he’ll explain later, are not afraid of premature death, but rather choose it as their destiny.

The Piranhas and literature from one side of the ocean to the other

When I write, I hurt. If I don’t hurt, I failed

The Piranhas is a tough book, which doesn’t spare anyone. But our interlocutor makes it clear to us right away: he is not here to entertain us. “Hegel, in Phenomenology of Spirit, writes a beautiful thing: ‘Reason is a wound.’ Only those who want to get inside it can find its meaning. When I write, I hurt. If I don’t hurt, I failed.” And what he calls an ‘infected wound’ is exactly the gash that you sense in his pages. Perhaps this is also because, compared to his previous work, this novel is based on real life. Saviano doesn’t like the division between fiction and nonfiction, typical of the Anglo-Saxon world, which, he explains, “for 20 years now has abandoned the great experiment of Truman Capote and Gay Talese”: a myopic approach, in his opinion. “For example, the nonfiction novel is said to be a ‘non-apple apple’. My battle for years rather has been to try to cleanse us from American puritanism in literature. I opted to write a novel to tell a true story while giving myself permission to get into the heads of these kids, to construct conversations even when I didn’t have the proof. I wanted to feel free, so I was inspired by real events.” And the dialogues, just like in the Gomorrah­ Tv series, “were inspired, ‘looted’ from wiretapping or bugs.”

At a cultural and literary level, there is no city more racist than New York

It is while talking about literature that the writer first sets himself apart from America, which he defines as “a bubble”: “Americans are obsessed with maintaining distance, I’m obsessed with closeness. I don’t care if I am being subjective, I don’t care about having a position, what I do care about is being clear, that my analysis is not distorted by my ideas. I’m objective, therefore, in the elements that I collect, but absolutely subjective in my gaze.” And this is why, for him, being published by overseas publications is a huge challenge: “Nothing can be further from America than European and African writing. We’re still poor migrants: they toy with us a little, give us a review, but always from a great distance. In this sense, at a cultural and literary level, there is no city more racist than New York; there is no world more violent, distant, skeptical compared to Italy, France, or Turkey. As non-American writers, we are still on Ellis Island, not perceived as truly interesting,” he says.

Roberto Saviano during the interview (Photo credits: Chiara Nobis / VNY).

Naturally, in America, his TV series Gomorrah didn’t trigger the controversy it did in Italy. In the Belpaese, it’s been accused of “glamorizing” the Camorra, of making it a model — criticisms that he dismisses nonchalantly. Just after the first season of the show, he had clarified that his intention was to “recount evil from inside, maintaining credibility, lightening the narration without ever provoking empathy.” An objective, he says today, he has achieved. “There is sympathy for a character, which can happen because it’s part of the narrative. This happens for the most ambiguous characters in literary history, and then some: often you fall for the bad guys,” he points out. But in the case of Gomorra, he clarifies, “you don’t fall in love; you have sympathy from time to time for the characters who later disgust you. At least this is the direction I wanted to go in.” Saviano says he does not believe in art’s educational role. “Rather, education in art occurs, but not in that linear way you need to propagandize good,” he tells us. After all, he asks with a hint of irony, why did eight years of Don Matteo not fill Italy with priests?

From the screen to the pages of a novel, for him, writing means “being allowed to be in the wound of reality.” And that wound, in The Piranhas, is not represented solely by the Mafia, but above all by the story of a “generation that basically knows that it is lost, so it decides to die as soon as possible because it’s the only sure way to get what it wants.” Having access to economic powerhouses makes it possible to accumulate real fortunes. And of these powerhouses, drugs are the most effective. “Many people don’t understand why someone would kill for 10 dollars. The great truth, which extends from Mexico to Brooklyn to Naples, is that in someone’s mind he’s thinking, all you really need to turn the tables is 5000 euro. Because 5000 euro of pure cocaine is worth 1 million,” he explains. Here’s what is behind the apparently incomprehensible choice of risking ten years in jail to earn 50 euro with a robbery: after those 50, there will be 50 more, and then more. Let’s not even mention how easy it is to sell a bag of coke.

Of course, he clarifies, “Ninety percent of those who try to make this investment run into the police, narcs, or go down.” But those who make it, make it big. And if the price to pay is to die young, these “piranhas,” often “good-looking, brilliant and very well-spoken,” are not only unafraid but consider it a medal of honor.

Even New York has its “piranhas”

I hope Americans can see themselves in the pages of “The Piranhas”

Roberto Saviano in front of the Public Library in Manhattan (Photo credits: VNY / Chiara Nobis).

“All the suburbs of the world resemble each other.” Saviano repeats this like a mantra. This is why, with the publication of The Piranhas, he hopes that Americans “can see themselves, without looking at it like folklore.” From Naples to New York, on the streets of Paris and Chicago, every city has its own “piranhas.” These men and women all share the same vision and the same background music: rap. But will Americans, we ask, be able to hold their own gaze while looking in that mirror? “It will be the most educated: I don’t mean academically, but those who have the ability to truly look inside themselves,” he responds.

Saviano’s words expose an America — and above all a Big Apple — that usually remains hidden behind the blinding lights of Times Square and more than one veil of hypocrisy. For him, that New York is a “myth” that Italians love to tell: the keys to open its doors are “money and appearances;” otherwise, he says, “it is an absolutely inaccessible city, especially for those in need.” And he observes, “Then there are side doors, like fashion and food: Americans feel like these are missing in their lives, so they come and get it. But when it comes to literature and culture, only a small part of this bubble is open to it.” So what to do? “In his Last Diary,” Saviano recalls, “Corrado Alvaro observed how of its civilization, its culture, and its cuisine, Italians decide to export always and only the latter.” Instead, he continues, we should “occupy more of this city,” with cultural projects like the Italian Academy at Columbia University or the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at NYU. Projects that “help showcase the best of us: not propaganda about the Colosseum, but our analytical side, our brain, our talent.”

Italians in New York? They think they’re considered white, but they’re actually not. It strikes me to see how, to try to become New Yorkers, they lose solidarity for each other

The author of The Piranhas is not outright rejecting the Big Apple. “What I like about New York is that it’s a free city, it doesn’t judge; I like the multiculturalism and the cross-contamination,” he says. And yet, he is clear-eyed about its contradictions, often buried under sensationalist and forgiving rhetoric by those who came from the Boot with a bag full of dreams. “Italians think they’re considered ‘white’ but they’re actually not,” he points out. This was made clear in the 1900s with the caps on immigration, which applied to Italian migrants as well as the Greeks, the Irish, and the Hungarians. “It strikes me to see how Italians, to try to become New Yorkers, lose solidarity with each other: because the more you help your fellow Italian, the less you feel American.” The result? The community extinguishes itself and with it, its culture and language fade away. Saviano believes that the Italian language needs to be defended and disseminated but is instead left to die little by little. “If our language is truly dying, then let’s announce its funeral, and do what the Swedes or the Danes do, which is to speak English in school: if not, we are just creating a disadvantaged population.”

Beyond appearances, the criminal side of New York

The price of cocaine is decided in New York, always, all over the world

But it is when he describes mafia criminality making big bucks even in this city, that the “purulent wound” bleeds more vigorously. The disenchantment is absolute, with no chance for appeal, just in the same, surgically precise way he describes his beloved Naples in his books. “The Italian-American community feels the pain of prejudice and hates to talk about the mafia. And instead, that’s exactly why we need to turn the tables and talk about it,” he tells us. New York, he explains, “was a huge terminal for the Italian mafia,” represented by the five families Colombo, Lucchese, Genovese, Gambino, and Bonanno. This world’s success lies in a crude recipe: rejecting the law but following the rules. “The rule, in New York, is that if you join them and fall in line, you’re untouchable,” the writer explains. And then there’s cocaine, the story he told in ZeroZeroZero, which is sold by the Dominicans and arrives from Mexico, passing through Canada. “The Mexicans are by now at the very top. Crimes are committed by the Caribbean communities, the Puerto Ricans and the Jamaicans.” The Italians are the ones who solve problems, “in exchange for money, restaurants, and contracts.” “This is America, a country to make mafia,” he sums up incisively.

Despite the RICO act, organized crime continues to exist in the US. And New York “is a weird place: when they kill here, the news travels the world. And here is why crime rings need to be careful, shoot as little as possible. Little blood, lots of drugs: from this point of view, the Big Apple is ‘paradise,'” Saviano says. “The price of cocaine has always been set for the entire world in New York, so much so that all the mafias in the world, including the Nigerian one, base themselves on the price here.” Even from this point of view, New York is a trendsetter: “The coke that New York loves is exactly the one the world loves, just like its films and fashion.”

The feud with Salvini, and the South

Whatever happens, in the narrative whoever came before is worse, so Salvini and the Five Star movement can do anything. This happened with Fascism in the twenties and thirties

Saviano does not deviate from this profound, crude, and personal way to explain his views even when we ask him to turn his gaze to the Belpaese — and talk about his feud with the Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini. Don’t you think — we ask him — that the media frenzy around the right-wing Deputy Prime Minister only strengthens his end game, just like it happened with Trump in America? “Probably,” he says squarely, “but right now I don’t want to talk to people who don’t agree with me: I want to create a sense of community. There will be a time when I speak to those who disagree: in the last phase of Berlusconism I wanted most of all to meet people with different points of view to try to understand and convince them.” Doing this now, though, would be premature. “Whatever happens, the narrative is that whoever came before was worse, so Salvini and the Five Star Movement can do anything.” He adds, “This happened with Fascism in the twenties and thirties.” And it’s exactly in this context that, in his view, the role of the intellectual becomes to witness: not to create consensus as much as to highlight the “systematic lies” of the Minister of the Interior, unmasking the rhetoric through which, “anything which is a public good, anything which is study is seen as elitist, a scam, manipulation, freemasonry.” “As Rostand, author of Cyrano, said, ‘displeasing is my pleasure, I love to be hated,’” he notes.

Roberto Saviano during the interview (Photo credits: VNY / Chiara Nobis).

His assessment of the Italian South is equally lucid, in the very hours when the Minister of Labor and Industry Luigi di Maio is reaching an agreement with Taranto’s Ilva. “This is a betrayal for the Five Star electorate, and the same will happen more generally for all the South. I already hear who will say, ‘But what about who came before?’ Those who came before were a disaster: the Five Star Movement won exactly because Renzi’s Democratic Party allied itself with local potentates.” The left, therefore, bears its own share of the responsibility, and at the same time the Five Star Movement was able to “make a community.” “The South is in a state of despair and has accepted incompetents as better than nothing. Their rage has become enormous,” Saviano explains. In the meantime, for Salvini, “from instruments of hate, Southerners have become instruments of consensus.”

Italy is a country near extinction: no births, no happiness, no work

Saviano paints a somber picture, one in which the youth — as has long been happening in Italy — is the main victim. In his book, Saviano recounts exactly young people’s lives, burned and turned upside down — while many other young people leave the Belpaese because they know that there will be no space for their self-actualization. And in a time obsessed with migration, “this is the real emergency,” he says. “Every year, 100,000 people leave: it’s as if a city like Verona emptied itself out. Italy is a country near extinction: no births, no happiness, no work.” But most of all, our interlocutor argues, “this is the biggest taboo of politics, especially on the campaign trail.” Why? Because, on one hand, “outside of Italy, very few will vote.” On the other hand, promising a return and not keeping that promise would provoke a mass hemorrhage of votes.

Italo Calvino posited that in every real poem there exists a “lion’s marrow,” understood as “the sense of difficult reality, the non-adhesion to the most visible appearances, the miserly presence of beauty and good.” The impression that this rich New York conversation with Roberto Saviano leaves us with is that Calvino’s  “lion’s marrow” is ultimately that same “purulent wound” that his gaze on reality illuminates and makes bleed. Ultimately, as Bernard Malamud posited, what is literature’s vocation if not “a blessing capable of bleeding like a wound?” Arguably, here is why, in Italy, the author of Gomorrah is so divisive: his testimony is an act of loyalty and love, but it entails a wound — and a painful one at that. Ultimately, it is a peremptory choice: “If you don’t want to get hurt — which is legitimate,” he suggests, “don’t read my work.”

Translated from Italian by Chiara Trincia.

Chiara Nobis and Ilaria Maroni have contributed to this interview.

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