Monday, August 22, 2011

Meeting Saviano

The call came in the evening. He will see you, Mr. Malcolm. His security team has cleared your visit. You will meet with him in the late morning.

We drove through the hills, the lush vegetation surrounding us on all sides. A few miles outside of the city, and we were the only people on the road. We continued on for about 15 minutes.

We turned into the driveway of a villa. It's a hotel now, but it was once owned by a wealthy family from Perugia.

The bodyguards met us at the door.

"He's waiting in his quarters. He's ready to see you," one of them said.

I walked across the gardens, past the swimming pool, to a room – most likely, it was normally used as a conference room by visitors on business.

Today, it was empty. Empty, save a table in the middle, with three chairs.

I sat down. I was sweating. I often sweat ahead of meetings like this, but usually it's from the heat. This time, it was from nerves. I was about to meet a man I had heard much about. A man who I respected. A man who has a price on his head, and who has been on the run, living in hiding, since 2008.

He walked in. He had a big grin on his face, a childlike grin. He was happy to see me. I was delighted to see him, to meet him in person, finally.

We talked. He talked about the mafia in Italy; I told him about the mafias in Mexico. We talked about the history of mafias, their rise in the United States. We talked about what we would really like to write about as journalists, if we had a real choice in the matter. We exchanged pleasantries, polite comments about each other's books, about projects we might undertake in the future. He told me about his life in hiding. I told him that our meeting was a bit odd; I felt like I was meeting a mafia boss, whereas in fact I was meeting just another journalist.

We both admitted we don't like fame in our profession; journalists are not supposed to be famous, we both agreed. At least I can wander around wherever I want, I told him. Yes, he said; I have to deal with my security everywhere. I can't do anything normal anymore.

"I just want to buy a girl an ice cream," he said, softly.

After about 30 minutes, my meeting with Roberto Saviano came to an end. He got into a black car, surrounded by bodyguards provided by the Italian government since his ground-breaking book Gomorra, an expose of the Neapolitan mafia best known as the Camorra. I waved goodbye as he drove off to a new hiding place, somewhere in Italy, somewhere out of the line of fire of the men he exposed, the men who issued death threats after his book put the spotlight on their illicit activities and influence.

His car drove off, up the hill and out of sight.

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