In ‘The Piranhas,’ the Chronicler of Italy’s Mobsters Tries His Hand at Fiction. For a Change?

NAPLES, Italy — Roberto Saviano is only 38, but for nearly a dozen years it has been like this: He is guarded around the clock, moving from house to house and sleeping in the police station when he returns to Naples, because it’s the only safe place for him to stay overnight in his home city.

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Ian Fisher
, New York Times

NAPLES, Italy — Roberto Saviano is only 38, but for nearly a dozen years it has been like this: He is guarded around the clock, moving from house to house and sleeping in the police station when he returns to Naples, because it’s the only safe place for him to stay overnight in his home city.

Saviano earned the long line of people who wish him the very worst with his first book, “Gomorrah,” which in 2006 peeled back Naples’ skin to name the mobsters who he says destroyed his city. Thus began his journey to become Italy’s most divisive writer.

He returned to Naples recently to show me key places that appear in his new book, “The Piranhas,” the only way he can: from the back seat of an armored Nissan, which carried us, sirens screeching, down from Rome. At least two dozen elite officers took positions as the SUV stopped at a square where Saviano was going to venture a short walk. For good measure, out of nowhere, a large plainclothes security officer appeared with a submachine gun.

“I made the same mistake as soldiers who go to war voluntarily,” Saviano said, reflecting on life since “Gomorrah,” as we drove south at high speed along the A1 autostrada.

“When a soldier goes to war he thinks, ‘Either I get killed or I come back.’ That’s a mistake. Because when you return, you’ve lost your legs. You have hepatitis. You don’t sleep.”

“I’m neither alive nor dead,” he said. “They didn’t kill me. But they haven’t let me live.”

“The Piranhas,” which goes on sale in the United States on Sept. 4, is a literary departure for Saviano as his first conventional novel. “Gomorrah,” which turned into a blockbuster movie and TV series, and a second book in 2013, “ZeroZeroZero,” about the cocaine trade, are works of exhaustive investigation told in a novelistic style with some novelistic license. They have both been praised and criticized as “nonfiction novels,” “docufiction” and works of “investigative writing.”

His new book sheds any journalistic pretense, even as it tells the story of a real gang of teenagers who defied the old order and tried to take over criminal life in Naples. Though it is like his other books in that it is based on real events and was deeply researched, he has invented the names, and presents even real episodes and dialogue entirely as fiction. Unlike his other two books, which pointedly named names, “The Piranhas” pointedly does not.

“I chose a novel because I wanted to go deeper inside the characters,” he said. “I wanted the freedom to imagine what they were thinking.”

Some of Saviano’s friends, who have feared for his safety, are relieved that he finally wrote a “regular” novel. “His move to use fiction to communicate certain truths is a way to allow his message to get through without all the distractions that swirl around,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, who invited him to teach there in 2011.

Still, distractions follow him. Saviano is visiting Naples at a time, as he put it, of “tension.” He has placed himself squarely at the center of criticism against Italy’s new populist government, and raised the ire of Matteo Salvini, a right-wing, anti-migrant deputy prime minister. In July, Saviano posted a photo of a dead woman and child floating in the Mediterranean Sea on Twitter, asking “how much pleasure” Salvini derives from walling off migrants. “The hatred you have sown will overthrow you,” he tweeted.

The spat has been a sensation in Italy, combining the particular mix of respect and hatred that Saviano engenders. Some have cheered his blunt commentary, but recent elections suggest that many Italians agree with Salvini’s hard line on immigration. Salvini has threatened to sue Saviano and take away the state-sponsored escort. On the page and in life, drama chases Saviano.

“It’s my karma,” he said. “I go from trouble to trouble.”

Bearded, his balding head covered with a baseball cap, Saviano has a soft voice and a sense of humor. (He bowed his head in front of a box of Napoletano pizza. “A sacred moment,” he said before digging in.) He doesn’t seem much like a threat. But he is. Even asking if he has a significant other seems too much a risk.

The title of “The Piranhas” in Italian — “La Paranza Dei Bambini,” or “The Fishing Trawler of Children” — is arguably more evocative, suggesting the tiny fish who are attracted to a bright light by nighttime nets meant for bigger fish. It is the first of two novels; the second, “Fierce Kiss,” is scheduled for translation into English in 2020.

Both tell the story of a gang led, in the novel, by a clever but coldhearted high school student, Nicolas Fiorillo. He is charismatic and quotes Machiavelli like a knife. He believes that the old gangsters who controlled drug running in central Naples have become weak and decides to take over the business. This is no “baby gang,” but a real enterprise of young criminals who did not come up through the Camorra, Naples’ dominant crime group. Instead, they are like hundreds of thousands of young unemployed Italians who see little hope in following their parents’ career paths.

“They despise their parents,” he said. “Because they can’t pay the mortgage” and have accumulated too much debt.

What sets them apart is their use of social media: While silence was the code for old-school mobsters, these younger ones are endlessly texting one another, posting their exploits on Facebook, chronicling their lives and aspirations electronically. Phones are as important as weapons.

“The new generation understands that if you aren’t on social media you don’t exist,” Saviano said. “They are like Camorra 2.0.” The true story behind this novel is compelling, and it’s not hard to see why Saviano chose it for his novelistic debut. The Nicholas character is loosely based on Emanuele Sibillo, who was 19 when he was gunned down in 2015. A bit tubby, he wore dorky glasses and sported a beard that strove unsuccessfully to evoke the Islamic State. But he did not look much like a clan leader; more like a Berkeley Futurist. As with his other books, Saviano conducted extensive research: He interviewed the young survivors, families of the dead, lawyers and judges. He used wiretaps for some of the dialogue.

Saviano said that Sibillo has transformed into “a myth,” with a cult following among many young people and tribute pages and videos viewed widely on the web. “He risked his life for what he wanted.”

Saviano’s phone buzzed as we talked. It did often. How much of his shadowed life is spent on that iPhone?

“Sixty percent,” he said. “It’s terrible. This is something else I share with them.”

Maybe because he spends so much time alone, Saviano seems remarkably self-aware. And he’s come to see, as he suggested with his phone use, that he’s not so different from the people he writes about. They shared the same narrow streets; Mount Vesuvius, hazy in the distance; one of the world’s most beautiful bays. Both Saviano and his subjects are rich, thanks to their common interest in violence.

“It’s one of the reasons I am hated so much by the Camorra,” he said. “Because they think we are similar. We have the same concept of not being afraid to die, of having great ambitions.”

“I certainly don’t want to die, but I hate the Camorra more than anything because they ruined my country,” he added. “I don’t deny I have a feeling of vengeance against them.” Vengeance, another shared trait.

But it is not just the Camorra. As he has spoken out against the new government, corruption, deals between politicians and the mob, and in favor of migrants, he has become ever more polarizing. He has accused Salvini, the deputy prime minister, of inching the nation back to authoritarianism, a growing worry around Europe.

With all the guards, Saviano is not easy to get near. But on the square where the SUV has stopped — the spot where the young gang once shot randomly, killing a boy now memorialized there — some fans have managed to get close enough to take a selfie with Saviano. An older local woman, Raffaela Ippolito, has cut through the crowd.

“Can I greet you?” she asks cheerily, extending her hand to Saviano. “Compliments for everything you have done. You are great. But say something nice about Naples.” Outside Saviano’s ever-vigilant vise of protectors, Ippolito has more to say. “Part of what he writes is true,” she said. “Unfortunately it’s only the bad side of Naples. There are so many good things. But it’s his job.”

“Fierce Kiss,” the novel after “The Piranhas,” is already selling briskly in Italy and will not prove her wrong.

“The ending is not a happy one,” Saviano said, “as you can imagine.”

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