Salvatore Laporta/AP
Roberto Saviano

Saviano's Mob Threats Add Him to List of Persecuted Authors

October 16, 2008 02:40 PM
by Shannon Firth
Roberto Saviano, hunted by the mafia, joins the ranks of authors Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali in seeking freedom through exile.
Though his book exposing activities of the Naples, Italy mafia has sold more than a million copies, Roberto Saviano is miserable. The success of the book, “Gomorrah,” (a word play on Camorra, the name of the Naples crime family) drew the ire of the crime family when it was published two years ago, resulting in a public death threat. For two years, Saviano has lived like a fugitive, with bodyguards his only companions. Now that the book has been made into a film that has been submitted for consideration at the Oscars, his enemies have vowed to kill Saviano and his bodyguards by Christmas. On Wednesday, several suspects were arrested in connection with a plot to carry out this vow with a highway bomb.

Saviano is hardly the first author to face public death threats for writing about controversial topics. Perhaps the best-known death threat against an author was a “fatwa,” or Islamic religious ruling, issued by Iran’s ruler Ayatollah Khomeni in 1989 against Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s  book “The Satanic Verses” aroused such ire that he has lived in exile for nearly three decades, and three of his translators have been brutally attacked, one fatally.

In 1994, Taslima Nasrin, an author in Bangladesh, was the subject of a fatwa calling for her death because her book “Shame” criticized treatment of women under Islam. According to Time magazine, 100,000 demonstrators protested against her outside of the Parliament building in Dhaka. One group said it would release thousands of poisonous snakes unless she was executed. Of her confinement, Nasrin told Time, “It was like living in a jail cell. I felt as if I was dying every moment.”

In 1997, Horacio Castellanos, a novelist from El Salvador, went into hiding in Mexico City after receiving death threats for his novel "El Asco" ("Revulsion" in English), which exposed the Guatemalan genocide of the 1980s. Castellanos has written a second novel, “Insensatez” (“Senselessness” in English), based on human rights reports from the Archdiocese of Guatemala. He relocated to Pittsburgh with the help of an organization for persecuted authors.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born activist for Islamic women's rights, and author of the book “Infidel,” has, like Nasrin, also received death threats from Muslim extremists for the past several years. Hirsi Ali collaborated with Theo Van Gogh on “Submission,” a film about the suffering and abuse of Muslim women.  Van Gogh was murdered on a Dutch street in 2004.  Undaunted, Hirsi Ali wrote and published her autobiography, “Infidel” in 2007. 

That same year, the Hague rescinded its earlier promise to protect Ali, citing financial reasons, and she moved to the United States. Ali explains in "Infidel": “People ask me if I have some kind of death wish. The answer is no. However some things must be said.”

Background: Roberto Saviano’s self-imposed exile

Speaking with reporters from the Italian newspaper La Republicca, Saviano appeared inconsolable: “I want a home. I want to fall in love. I want to [be able to] drink a beer in public, go to a bookshop and choose a book after browsing the back cover … see my mother without fear—and without frightening her.” He added, “In private, I become an unlovely person ... suspicious, wary and, yes, mistrustful to a completely irrational degree.”  Saviano also said he plans to leave Italy.

Historical Context: Understanding censorship; book burnings; Salman Rushdie

The concept of freedom of speech is relatively new. Authors have been persecuted for centuries. In Roman times, the emperor Caligula had an author burned alive, and Nero exiled critical authors and burned their books.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, most blacklisted authors escaped Nazi Germany, where book burnings were common, but others such as Erich Mühsam and Carl von Ossietzky were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Ernst Toller, Kurt Tucholsy, and Stefan Zweig fled Germany, only to kill themselves in their new lands. Many survivors made remembering the book burnings the focus of their life’s work. Journalist and poet Christian Johann Heinrich Heine, correctly predicted in his play, “Almansor,” set during the Spanish Inquisition, “Wherever they burn books, in the end they will also burn human beings.”

Perhaps the best-known case of persecution of an author is the death sentence issued by Iran Ruler Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 against Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses.”  Despite Rushdie’s apology and promise to work for a better understanding of Islam, in 2005 Ayatollah Ali Khameini said that he still believed Rushie should be killed.

Related Topic: Muslim extremists attack home office of London book publisher

In September, vandals attempted to firebomb the London home and office of Martin Ryjna, owner of Gibson Square, the British publisher of “The Jewel of Medina.” The book, authored by Sherry Jones, focuses on A’isha, a wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Three men have been arrested in connection with the bomb attack. 

Fearing violence, Random House cancelled publication of the book but Beaufort Books bought the rights and released the book in the United States, without trouble, on Oct. 6, 2008. Gibson Square initially announced that the attack on his home would not delay publication in the U.K., but in fact has now put the release on hold. The book is still scheduled to be released in over a dozen countries this month.

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