Gillian Slovo: the courage of Roberto Saviano.
‘Saviano wears what Neapolitans call a wooden shirt: a coffin’
Earlier his week, I sat in the British Library auditorium among the large audience that had come to witness the presentation of the 2011 PEN/Pinter prize, transfixed by the sight of a man who wasn’t there. He could only gaze back at me from the 20ft photograph projected across the rear of the stage. His stare was beautiful and unsettling. His name is Roberto Saviano, and he is a courageous Italian writer who lives under a permanent death threat from the Neapolitan Mafia.
The prize is shared each year by two writers, one British, one international, who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel speech, cast an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze upon the world. As president of English PEN I had judged this year’s prize, alongside Antonia Fraser, Michael Billington, Hanif Kureishi and Claire Tomalin. We gave the British prize to David Hare, who was at the ceremony to accept it. He in turn had awarded the international prize to Roberto Saviano, who could not be with us.
In a subtly devastating speech David Hare talked about hindsight, and how easily it comes to us, and he talked about how completely we lack the power of foresight. He told us of the way Pinter’s first full-length play had been trashed by most critics and closed after six performances. This, Hare said, was Pinter’s good fortune: it freed him from “the tyranny of the world’s opinion”. Having survived this disaster, Hare continued, Pinter was able to write purely for his own conscience, without fear or favour. By contrast, the rest of us think we can see what everyone else has got wrong, but we have no idea how to get things right.
Hare compared this with the attitude of the majority of people in France in the early 1940s who, forced to choose between collaboration and resistance, simply refused to make the choice: they just waited to see which way the wind would blow. This was known as attentisme: sitting it out; what Hare called “the defining philosophy of our day”. We accept the failures of bankers, politicians, newspapers, because we’re used to them and we cannot imagine how to organise things differently.
Pinter did not accept things the way they are, and neither does Roberto Saviano. This, Hare told us, is why he had chosen to share his prize with the Italian writer. Because of the “unflinching, unswerving” gaze that Saviano has cast on the Mafia. But where, you may ask, was Saviano?
In previous years the international prize has gone to an imprisoned Burmese poet (Maung Thura, known as Zargana) and a hospitalised Mexican journalist (Lydia Cacho). It was easy to understand why they couldn’t be at their ceremonies. This year, the audience was astonished to hear that Saviano could not be in London because of the failure of the metropolitan police to offer him adequate protection.
Annalisa Piras, London correspondent for L’Espresso, accepted the prize on Saviano’s behalf. She described his life. He does not sleep in the same bed for more than two nights running. He lives in hotel rooms – some with a small window, some without. He moves between towns and cities in western Europe. The same towns and cities we visit on holiday, or for conferences, perhaps even the same hotels. I find it hard to spend even a couple of nights in hotels. Saviano is condemned to spend his life in them.
A few years ago, Piras managed to get Saviano to the UK, and they spent an evening out in Soho. She told us how, for a few hours, the weight lifted from Roberto and she saw him not as a hunted man, but as a normal 28-year-old, chatting up girls and enjoying the nightlife. Looking at his photo on stage I could still see this in him. Which only served to underline how far removed his life is from these casual pleasures. And all because of his writing.
Whereas Hare’s speech was carefully crafted, Piras’s was delivered without notes and with a passion that was raw, exposed and moving. People, she said, should not make the mistake of equating a mafia death sentence with a fatwa. It isn’t a fatwa: it’s even worse. For whereas a fatwa can be rescinded, renegotiated, forgotten, a threat from the Mafia is forever. As proof she cited one man who had been killed 50 years after the mafia announced their intention kill him. Saviano, she told us, wears what Neapolitans call a wooden shirt: a coffin.
I come from a country – South Africa – where the word was equally powerful. Where speaking out could earn a writer a banning, an imprisonment or even death. And today at PEN we are overwhelmed by the numbers of writers and journalists who are killed with impunity around the world, in countries from Mexico to Russia. This, more than anything, shows us how powerful is the word, and how important it is that we safeguard it. But how can we stand up for these courageous individuals when their governments wash their hands of responsibility – when their societies submit to attentisme?
One way is to give them prizes. Piras underlined the importance of this prize to Saviano, and to Italy, because it showed that he had not been abandoned by either writers or readers across Europe. At the same time it sent a signal to the Mafia that if they do kill him, there will be consequences. Saviano is a hero in a land without heroes, Piras told us. What a shame, therefore, that in this country, where we have been so badly failed by some of our newspapers, we cannot give this icon of free expression a hero’s welcome.