Mafia Author Roberto Saviano’s Plagiarism Problem
Roberto Saviano’s new book on organized crime, ZeroZeroZero, contains numerous instances of apparent plagiarism, along with interviews with ‘sources’ who may not actually exist.
When writing about Italian journalist Roberto Saviano it’s necessary that one begin with a rueful description of the best-selling author’s life on the run: The quarry of Naples’s brutal mafia, the Rushdie of Rome, Saviano lives in the shadows, always accompanied by a phalanx of heavily armed bodyguards. This is the depressing consequence of having written Gomorrah, his massively successful book cataloging the psychopathic brutality of the Italian mafia. Such things tend to upset the psychopathically brutal, and the resulting threats require Saviano to live as a protectorate of the Italian state.
This wasn’t always so. According to Saviano, when Gomorrah was published in 2006 local mafia bosses “would actually give copies of [the book] to each other as gifts, with pride.” But pride gave way to vengeance when Gomorrah became a global phenomenon, selling 10 million copies worldwide, midwifing a much-garlanded film adaptation, an award-winning play, and a critically acclaimed television series.
Locked in his gilded cage, Saviano has become something of a global celebrity, one of the rare journalists whose writing had translated into fantastic wealth (and the rare writer with over a million Twitter followers). The literary rock star now keeps company with actual rock stars; and his new book includes a fulsome thank you to U2 singer Bono “for listening to these stories when I was still wound up in them.” (At a 2010 concert in Rome, Bono acknowledged Saviano’s presence in the audience, instructing the crowd to cheer for “somebody who means a lot to me.”)
Saviano claims that his celebrity has also brought far-reaching political influence, telling me via email that “in Italy I am not perceived simply as a writer, but as someone who, even though separate and distant from parliament, has the power to engage even the highest political offices in conversation. If a camorra [mafia] feud causes deaths in Naples, the prime minister makes a promise to me to give more attention to southern Italy. The presidents of the Anti-Mafia Commissions speak and exchange views with me. I say this in order to make it clear how exposed I am and how strong the will is to undermine my authority.”
The mafia might hate him, his rivals might seethe with jealousy, but Saviano likes to point out that he’s loved by the plebs. After returning to Italy from a brief exile in the United States, he boasted that the assembled crowds wanted “to touch me and embrace me.” He told another interviewer that his imprimatur can help smuggle highbrow subjects across the border into lowbrow Italy, like when he “went on TV and talked about Dostoevsky and the viewing figures went crazy.”
After stints teaching journalism at NYU and Princeton, and apparently exhausted from living as a prisoner of his protectors, Saviano has finally returned to reporting on organized crime with ZeroZeroZero, the much-anticipated and heavily promoted follow-up to Gomorrah. The Neapolitan wiseguys have been replaced by a global cast of cocaine-dealing villains with barely distinguishable noms de narco—El Magico, El Mayo, El Mochomo, El Mata Amigos, El Majadero, El Más Loco, El Mencho, El Mono.
ZeroZeroZero is a mess of a book; a series of stories in search of a coherent narrative, where globally insignificant events are assigned great historical significance, and every other assembled fact is both overblown and overwritten. (1) Add to this a handful of short interstitial chapters of cocaine-themed poetry so clumsy it would make William McGonagall wince. But because this is famous investigative journalist Roberto Saviano, ZeroZeroZero has been lavishly praised by critics and has sold by the pallet-load in Europe. An eight-part, English-language television adaptation is already in production.
But Saviano hasn’t just written a bad book. He’s written an astonishingly dishonest book. ZeroZeroZero is stuffed with reporting and writing plundered from lesser-known journalists; it includes interviews with “sources” who may not exist (more on this in a moment); and it contains numerous instances of unambiguous plagiarism.
While American reviewers of ZeroZeroZero have displayed flashes of skepticism, none have mentioned a recent Italian court ruling affirming accusations that at least three portions of Gomorrah were plagiarized. (Saviano told me that the passages amounted to “0.6 percent” of the book and that the judge nevertheless affirmed that Gomorrah was an “original work.” Saviano’s American publisher Penguin Press passed my questions along to Saviano, but did not respond to requests for comment.)
So how did Saviano respond to these grave, potentially career-damaging charges? Any allegations of plagiarism, he shrugged, could be traced back to the Italian mafia and their media surrogates who were predictably “trying to destroy” his reputation. But while surely proficient in murder and intimidation, Saviano hasn’t proven that the mafia was capable of time travel, allowing his enemies to insert passages from Gomorrah into articles written before the book came out. (2)
The Italian magistrate’s ruling has had little effect on the Saviano mythology—nor, it seems, on his reporting methodology. Analyzing random paragraphs from ZeroZeroZero, as described below, I frequently found examples of research and language pilfered from other journalists, not encased in quotation marks, and not cited. Of course, one cannot footnote plagiarism (and there are no footnotes in ZeroZeroZero). But readers are left with the distinct impression, promoted by Saviano himself, both in the book and various interviews, that ZeroZeroZero is built on his globe-spanning reporting junkets, his deep dives into various archives, and the testimony of anonymous insiders. Indeed, Saviano told me that the book is made up of “hundreds of conversations and interviews with protagonists, judicial investigations from all over the world, books, articles, movies, news reports, and facts which I studied for many years…” (3)
Saviano occasionally allows for some ambiguity as to whose reporting he’s passing along to readers. For instance, describing the Mexican drug gang Los Zetas’s internal structure, he writes that “Mexican and American sources” have revealed that “there is a precise division of duties within Los Zetas, each with its own name.”
“Las Ventanas, the Windows: kids who sound the alarm when they spot police officers sticking their noses into drug-dealing zones; Los Halcones, the Falcons: who take care of distribution; Los Leopardos, the Leopards: prostitutes trained to extort precious information from clients; Los Mañosos, the Clever Ones: in charge of weapons; La Dirección, the Command: the brains of the operation.”
If this information was provided by Saviano’s own sources—and the phrasing is unclear—they’ve furnished him with a list similar in both order and language to a 2008 Wikipedia entry on Los Zetas:
“Los Halcones (The Hawks) keep watch over distribution zones… Las Ventanas (The Windows) comprise bike-riding youngsters in their mid-teens who whistle to warn of the presence of police and other suspicious individuals near small stores that sell drugs. Los Mañosos (The Cunning Ones) acquire arms; Los Leopardos (Leopards) are prostitutes who slyly extract information from their clients; and Dirección (Command) are approximately 20 communications experts…”
When not attributing publically available information to unnamed “sources,” Saviano is presenting information and snatches of dialogue without any sourcing. Attempting to verify some of the more curious claims in ZeroZeroZero, I discovered a significant amount of material taken directly from other journalists without attribution—and often using language that appeared to differ mostly owing to repeated translation between English, Spanish, and Italian.
Take the tragic story of Christian Poveda, a Franco-Spanish activist and filmmaker brutally murdered in El Salvador. Much of the detail provided by Saviano is cut-and-paste from a 2009 Los Angeles Times report by Mexico City-based reporter Deborah Bonello (note that the text is translated from English into Italian, then back into English, accounting for slight variations in phrasing):
Los Angeles Times, “La Vida Loca’ captures daily reality of El Salvador’s gangs,” Deborah Bonello: “Little One” is a 19-year-old mother with an enormous “18”… tattooed on her face… from above her eyebrows down onto her cheeks. “Moreno” is a 25-year-old male member of the same gang who works in a local bakery set up by a nonprofit group called Homies Unidos. The bakery eventually folds when its owner is arrested and sentenced to 16 years in jail on homicide charges. And “Wizard,” another young mother and gang member, who lost her eye in a fight, is followed by Poveda during a long series of medical consultations and operations to fit her with a replacement glass eye. She’s shot and killed before the end of the film.”
Saviano: “He tells the story of “Little One,” a nineteen-year-old mother with an enormous 18 tattooed on her face, from her eyebrows to her chin. He tells the story of Moreno, twenty-five, who wanted to change his life and started working in a bakery set up by a nonprofit called Homies Unidos. But the bakery closes when its owner is arrested and sentenced to sixteen years for homicide. He tells of La Maga, another young mother, she too a gang member who lost an eye in a fight. Christian follows her to her doctor’s appointments, to her surgery to replace the damaged eye with a glass one… she’s shot dead before he finishes shooting the movie…”
Los Angeles Times: “… there are 15,000 gang members in El Salvador; 14,000 in Guatemala; 35,000 in Honduras; and 5,000 in Mexico. The biggest population of gang members still resides in the U.S., with an estimated 70,000 living there…”
Saviano: “… about 15,000 members in El Salvador, 14,000 in Guatemala, 35,000 in Honduras, 5,000 in Mexico. The highest concentration is in the United States, with 70,000 members.”
Saviano makes slight modifications to the text (like translating “wizard” into Spanish) and omits some extraneous details. But even applying the most conservative definition of plagiarism, this inarguably qualifies. When I presented Saviano with the first passage, he insisted that the similarities were purely coincidental: “This is a description of the protagonists of Poveda’s documentary, which is more or less the same in many newspapers and sources all over the world, because here we are just reporting data, facts, numbers which are in the movie and which were part of the press releases of La Vida Loca.” In a second email, he reiterated that “there is only one way to describe a documentary, and when I have to write about it, I don’t rely only on my memory but also read the press book, just as all of my colleagues do.”
When I contacted Deborah Bonello, she told me that “the two paragraphs bear a striking resemblance that would be hard to have happened [by] coincidence.” And contrary to Saviano’s claims that they were likely working off the same press materials, Bonello told me that her story was “based on an interview with the (now deceased) director of La Vida Loca.”
Bonello apparently wasn’t the only unnamed source in ZeroZeroZero. Saviano’s stories are frequently cobbled together from many different accounts from in-the-field journalists. When I couldn’t find one set of details in the Los Angeles Times story on Poveda, I quickly traced it to the Spanish-language Salvadorean newspaper El Faro.
El Faro: “Between 12:27 and 12:29 pm… the gang took the wheel of a silver gray pickup, a Nissan Pathfinder 4x4, and headed to the bridge over the Las Cañas River. Poveda was killed there and… Romero Vasquez was one of the perpetrators…”
Saviano: “But a little after noon Vásquez Romero gets behind the wheel of a gray Nissan Pathfinder 4 x 4 and drives Christian onto the bridge over the Las Cañas River. That’s where they kill him. ”
A section in ZeroZeroZero on Russian organized crime’s involvement in the global cocaine trade copies the work of the late investigative journalist Robert I. Friedman. Again, Saviano provides no attribution:
Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America, Robert I. Friedman: “[Tarzan] boasted that he could thumb through any adult magazine… ‘call my agent, get the girl to the club, and then take her out and fuck her brains out.’”
Saviano: “Tarzan boasts that all he has to do is point at a woman in any adult magazine for his agent to call her and bring her to the club, where Tarzan fucks her till she drops.”
The Village Voice, “The Most Dangerous Mobster in the World,” Robert I. Friedman: “… an FBI informant told the bureau that one of [his] chief lieutenants in Los Angeles met two Russians from New York City with Genovese crime family ties to broker a scheme to dump American toxic waste in Russia… in the Chernobyl region, ‘probably through payoffs to the decontamination authorities there,’ says a classified FBI report.”
Saviano: “From an FBI report it appears that one of his lieutenants, who is stationed in Los Angeles, met with two New York Russians linked to the Genovese crime family to develop a plan for shipping toxic American medical waste to Ukraine, to the area of Chernobyl, probably with kickbacks to local decontamination authorities.”
Red Mafiya: “[Juan] Almeida… had been a major cocaine dealer… He supervised the tricky contacts with the Colombian drug cartels using his luxury car rental shops, a posh marina, and other businesses he owned as covers…”
Saviano: “Then there’s Juan Almeida, one of the biggest traffickers of Colombian cocaine in Florida, who keeps in contact with the Colombian cartels through a luxury car rental agency in Miami and other cover businesses.”
Red Mafiya: “Birbragher… was a Colombian… [with] excellent ties to the Cali cartel. In 1982, he admitted… that he had washed $54 million for them. ‘Birbragher was very close friends with Pablo Escobar,’ says the DEA’s Brent Eaton. ‘He [Birbragher] used to buy him [Escobar] sports cars and luxury boats and do a lot of other things for him.’”
Saviano: “Birbragher, a Colombian on excellent terms with both the Cali cartel, for which he recycled more than $50 million in the early 1980s, and Pablo Escobar, for whom he purchased yachts and sports cars.”
I showed the first two examples to Saviano, who again dismissed the similarities. “Friedman and I simply used the same source,” he said in an email. But Friedman cited his source—a classified FBI report—while Saviano did not, though he argued that the “fact that my research on the Russians was also based on Friedman’s work is not a secret, seeing as I cite him in the acknowledgements.” Saviano never “cites” the author, but says he is “grateful for Robert Friedman’s vision.” It’s the only mention of Friedman in ZeroZeroZero. (Directly following the mention of Friedman, who died 13 years ago, Saviano also thanks journalist Misha Glenny—who would later generously review ZeroZeroZero for the Financial Times.)
And here is Saviano on Baruch Vega, a Colombian fashion photographer who led a double life as an undercover DEA asset. A good portion of the detail in ZeroZeroZero is pulled and distilled, uncredited, from a 2003 investigative story in the St. Petersburg Times. (4) A sample:
St. Petersburg Times, “Dr. B and Group 43,” David Adams: Vega was the second of 11 children fathered by a trumpet player of little means in Bogota. At 15, he won a $20,000 amateur photography contest sponsored by Kodak. His was a chance shot he made of a bird, a fish in its beak, diving into a still lake behind the house where he grew up in Bucaramanga, Colombia. His parents wouldn’t let him study photography, so he studied engineering at Industrial University of Santander State in Colombia. A professor recruited him for the CIA. In the early 1970s, he says he was sent to Chile, to help CIA efforts to destabilize the government of Salvador Allende.
Saviano: The second of eleven children of a trumpet player from Bogotá who relocated to Bucaramanga… Baruch won a Kodak competition when he was fifteen. He immortalized a bird as it emerged from a lake with a fish in its beak. But his parents make him study engineering. At the University of Santander he is recruited by the CIA and sent to Chile: Salvador Allende’s government is about to fall.
ZeroZeroZero ends with a vivid retelling of Mexican journalist Bladimir Antuna García’s murder by a drug gang affiliated with notorious narco-terrorist El Chapo—an account cannibalized, in its entirety, from a 2009 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). It’s instructive to compare the two accounts and witness Saviano condensing and copying the reporting of others—without attribution, of course. The complete passage from ZeroZeroZero, alongside the CPJ report, can be viewed here. (The CPJ report obviously provides a longer and more detailed account than Saviano; I’ve kept the order the same, but have compressed the CPJ story to highlight only the portions Saviano rewrote.)
While passing off the reporting of others as your own might be one of the most serious offenses in journalism, Saviano might have committed an even graver sin in ZeroZeroZero, combining plagiarism with what appears to an invented interview.
According to Saviano, he interviewed countless sources and traveled to almost a dozen countries in the course of researching ZeroZeroZero. Indeed, he has previously written that being hunched over a computer, mining Google, isn’t sufficient for a professional journalist, because “the way to truly understand, to get to the bottom of things, is to smell the hot breath of reality, to touch the nitty-gritty.”
While critics have occasionally speculated about the veracity of some of his material, it has previously been impossible to verify information provided by—or even the existence of—his anonymous sources. But in ZeroZeroZero, Saviano makes a revealing mistake.
After discovering that former members of the Kaibiles, an elite and notoriously brutal unit of the Guatemalan special forces, are moonlighting as enforcers for Mexican drug cartels, Saviano does what any good journalist would do: He decides that he “has to meet a Kaibil.” Miraculously, he finds “Ángel Miguel” loitering in Italy (“It’s not hard to meet a Kaibil, as it turns out,”). Miguel is an “elegantly dressed” Guatemalan willing to talk about his former comrades.
The encounter reads like a particularly orotund Miami Vice script. When Saviano fails to notice the scantily dressed beauty skulking in the background—“Very blond, her dress like a second skin, vertiginous heels”—the swaggering Miguel accuses him of being “a fag.” A cinematic touch before Miguel is casually spilling the secrets of the Kaibil, explaining the hardships of elite military training and the derring-do of its recruits.
Saviano, quoting Ángel Miguel: “To complete the training you have to go without sleep for two days, in a river up to your neck. They’d given my cuas and me a puppy, a mongrel with watery eyes… We gave it a name and were starting to grow fond of it when our chief told us we had to kill it… Then the chief told us we had to eat it and drink its blood… Only a third of us made it to the end.”
The conversation with Ángel Miguel is both fascinating and terrifying, packed with jaw-dropping detail. But did Saviano really meet a former Kaibil? And if so, why do substantial portions of the conversation between author and interviewee track so closely to a 2005 news story written by Mexican journalist José Luis Castillejos?
Compare Miguel’s description of his training to this passage from Castillejos, published by the Mexican wire service Notimex: (5)
Notimex, “Kaibiles: Un Entrenamiento en el Infierno Guatemalteco,” José Luis Castillejos, October 4, 2005: “As part of the course, which only a third of the candidates finish, the future Kaibiles have to go two days without sleeping in a river with neck-high water… As part of their training, they are taught to take care of puppies which they kill later to eat them.”
As one reads further, the quotes from Miguel—and Saviano’s own descriptions of the Kaibiles—suggest that Saviano may have created an interview with an anonymous source by recrafting the decade-old Notimex story:
Saviano, quoting Ángel Miguel: “At the end of the eight weeks there’s a dinner. Huge, smoking grills, the fire fed constantly, and alligator, iguana, and deer steaks thrown on it all night long. There’s also a tradition of grabbing the Guatemalan minister of defense and throwing him in a pond with crocodiles (they’re far away, but those government guys are real wimps!).”
Notimex: “At the end of the training, the commandos have a feast of roasted alligator, iguana and deer steaks. And they are allowed to take by force the current Guatemalan Minister of Defense and throw him to a pond with crocodiles.”
Saviano, quoting Ángel Miguel: “‘The first training phase lasts twenty-one days,’ Ángel Miguel says, ‘followed by the second, twenty-eight days. In the jungle. Rivers, swamps, minefields… The last week finally arrives. The last step in becoming a real Kaibil. You learn to eat whatever there is, whatever you can find. Cockroaches, snakes. You learn to conquer enemy terrain, annihilate it, take possession of it.’”
Notimex: “The first [training phase] is twenty-one days of theory… The second stage takes place in the jungle for twenty-eight days and after hard training, the Kaibil must… be able to cross streams, swamps, bluffs, and to detect and defuse mines. During the last stage, the aspiring Kaibil, used to eating snakes, ants, and roots and collecting dewdrops in leafs, must now execute annihilation attacks, intelligence maneuvers, penetration into enemy territory, and resupplying.”
Saviano, on the Kaibiles: “After the dinner, you can finally wear the Kaibiles’ emblem: the dagger on a blue and black background… And rising up from the dagger is a flame that burns eternally. Liberty. Ángel Miguel suddenly raises his hand and spreads out his fingers. ‘Smell. Hearing. Touch. Sight. Taste.’ The five senses, which the perfect Kaibil must develop and always keep sharp. ‘Unity and strength.’ I look at Ángel Miguel. He’s no longer a Kaibil.”
Notimex: “Now [after the dinner] they can wear the Kaibil emblem, a mountaineering carabiner, which symbolizes union and strength, and a dagger in the center of the image, which represents honor, and a handle with five notches which reference the five senses.”
Saviano: “The Kaibil must never—not for any reason in the world—be parted from his maroon beret, which bears their coat of arms: a mountaineering carabiner, which represents unity and strength; a dagger, symbolizing honor, with five notches in the handle, which represent the five senses.”
Either Ángel Miguel doesn’t exist or Saviano’s interaction with him yielded so little usable material that he raided the Internet to fatten up an otherwise unenlightening interview. When I asked Saviano about this, he answered emphatically that the “Ángel Miguel [material] is original, the result of my meeting, and I don’t know what… news story to which you are referring, but it certainly was not my source for this story.” All the words attributed to Ángel Miguel came directly from the ex-Kaibil, he told me.
To provide further context to the Ángel Miguel story, in ZeroZeroZero Saviano describes (and slightly mischaracterizes) one of the most brutal crimes of the exceptionally brutal Guatemalan Civil War: the infamous 1982 Dos Erres massacre, during which 250 civilians were murdered. While Miguel speaks in the language of a Mexican wire service, Saviano writes curiously like a Wikipedia volunteer:
Saviano: “The youngest were smashed against walls or trees. The bodies were thrown into wells… When they left the village the soldiers took with them two girls… raping them repeatedly. When they got tired of them, they strangled them.”
Wikipedia: “They bashed the smallest children’s heads against walls and trees… Their bodies were dumped in a well… They kept two teenage girls for the next few days, raping them repeatedly and finally strangling them.”
After seeing the similarities between “Ángel Miguel’s” quotes and the Notimex story, one cannot help but wonder if Saviano’s other sources might also be composites or inventions.
In a section on Guinea-Bissau’s importance as a transit point in the cocaine trade, Saviano introduces us to the pseudonymous drug mule “Mamadu,” who has swallowed and transported countless bags of cocaine into Europe in the hope that “by my thirtieth delivery I should have enough money to treat [my girlfriend] to dinner in a fancy restaurant in Lisbon.” It’s unclear where and when the conversation took place, but Saviano provides a thumbnail sketch of Mamadu’s life before it was transformed by the cocaine trade:
“Mamadu tells me about the day in 2009 when he happened to pass by the residence of the president of the republic, João Bernardo Vieira. At first he mistook the shots for firecrackers, which he’d always been afraid of, and he turned in the direction of the noise in order to look the little dynamiters in the face. But there was only a throng of people that drew aside in a disorderly fashion as two cars, tires squealing, slalomed their way through the terrified passersby. On the ground the crumpled body of some man he didn’t recognize. It wasn’t until the next day that Mamadu, glancing at the headlines, learned that it was the president of the republic.”
Like many of Saviano’s characters, Mamadu is slightly too perfect. And one stray detail suggests that something isn’t quite right with his story. Unless Mamadu wandered into the kitchen of President João Bernardo Vieira’s private residence at 5 a.m.—where he was shot and hacked to death—either the author or his source is a fantasist. (Initial news reports claimed he was killed in an “attack outside his house,” a mistake still present in Vieira’s Wikipedia page.) Nor is it plausible that Mamadu was casually strolling by the president’s residence before dawn, heard a volley of gunshots, and saw Vieira’s lifeless body crumpled on the pavement, only discovering the following day what he had witnessed. The running gun battle that began outside Vieira’s residence lasted approximately three hours.
And what of the handful of other characters Saviano claims to have interviewed? Did an Italian-speaking NYPD investigator (“His Italian was full of dialect, but I could understand him”) really provide him with a transcript of a multinational mafia summit, featuring “an old Italian boss talking to a group of Latinos, Italians, Italian Americans, Albanians, and former Kaibiles”? Did a grizzled mob veteran deliver an extemporaneous—and pitch-perfect—disquisition on honor at this meeting of the mafia’s Super Friends? What about “Don Arturo,” the elderly and sage-like opium grower whose fields are first burned by the Mexican army and then reconstituted at the behest of the American military?
Saviano assured me that “none of the characters that you met in ZeroZeroZero were invented. Every one of them, from the first to the last, is real.” But in a previous email he rather forthrightly admitted to creating at least one composite character for narrative effect: “In some cases, I group together a stereotype, a widespread figure, or different people who actually existed into the same character in order to make the presentation easier. Don Arturo in the chapter on Mexico is an example. There have been dozens of Don Arturos in Mexico who have a similar story. In each case my readers are never reading things that were invented but facts that actually happened, even though they may have happened to different characters that can be put in the same category.” In other words, “Don Arturo” is an invention of Saviano.
When I pointed out that nowhere in ZeroZeroZero is it mentioned that some characters are composites, Saviano said contemptuously, if somewhat confusingly, that these techniques are “simple to understand for those who are accustomed to reading. It’s not necessary for a publisher to write on the book jacket, ‘This book is not simply journalism, but is a nonfiction novel.’” This, he claims, is his métier: a “non-fiction novelist,” in the tradition of Truman Capote, dealing in absolute truth but leavened with literary flourish. (6) And indeed, nowhere does Penguin Press, which categorizes the book as nonfiction, use the phrase “novel” to describe ZeroZeroZero.
And besides, Saviano told me, there are two blurbs on the back cover—one from a Spanish newspaper, the other from a German publication—that described the book as “literary.” “The form that my book takes is clear to everyone,” he said in an email, and “it is rare that someone asks me: ‘Saviano, could you please show me where in your book it is written that it belongs to the genre of the nonfiction novel?’”
But is it clear to everyone that Saviano is rewriting the work of other journalists or that he is creating composite characters? Reviewing ZeroZeroZero for The New York Times, Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden wondered about the “Don Arturo” character: “Memorable passage. But did this actually happen? Is there really a Don Arturo? … What in this sometimes compelling, often tedious assortment of parables, poetry, dramatic monologues, cautionary tales and horror stories is true, and what is fantasy?” It’s a question the back cover blurbs fail to answer.
One Italian journalist who has covered and interviewed Saviano told me that after reading Gomorrah he too wondered what percentage of his stories were true, chuckling at the “nonfiction novel” designation: “Did you, Roberto Saviano, actually do all the things you write in your book? If you didn’t, it’s a novel. If you did—and you did exactly those things, and met exactly those people—then it’s nonfiction.” (7)
Saviano has previously waved off suggestions that he embellishes or invents material. His books might read like novels, he recently told an interviewer, but all the events “actually happened” and to “included unreal details [in ZeroZeroZero]” would be inadvisable because “the power of reality would have ended up being compromised.” But the nonfiction novel, he told me, “cannot and must not bend to the roles of investigative journalism and nonfiction.”
“I’m not a journalist (or a reporter), but, rather, a writer, and I recount real facts,” he told me. And yet the jacket flap of ZeroZeroZero refers to Saviano as a “journalist of rare courage” and the book as an “electrifying investigation,” while almost every recent profile or review of his work identifies him as an “investigative journalist.” (Promotional materials for ZeroZeroZero likewise say he’s the “rare kind of journalist” who has suffered in service to the truth.)
When asked if future editions of ZeroZeroZero would contain sourcing, Saviano scoffed that the “book is [in the] non-fiction genre, but it is first of all a novel. Why should I add sourcing to a novel?” (8)
Saviano wants to have it both ways, but says that it is his deep commitment to truth that explains “why I haven’t written fiction books.”
Perhaps it’s time that Saviano start. Though I suspect he already has.
1—Saviano possesses an astonishing gift for overstatement. A few examples: The murder of an undercover DEA agent is, Saviano says, “the origin of the [modern] world”; the actions of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar were more significant “than by anything Reagan and Gorbachev decided or did”; there is “no market in the world [that] brings in more revenue than the cocaine market”; and anonymous tweets supporting Mexican drug lord El Chapo “say more about the world today than most articles and political powwows.”
2—When asked by The Daily Princetonian about the plagiarism verdict, Saviano expanded the conspiracy theory, advising that the interviewer “note that the newspapers that have denounced me are the very same I have attacked in my investigative reportages. As for the publisher, he is someone who has been condemned for extortion in another case.” What shadowy force corrupted the presiding judge is left unsaid. In an email, Saviano pointed out the he had previously attacked the same two newspapers who sued for plagiarism—even making a television program denouncing them. The lawsuit, he says, was launched soon thereafter. “Maurizio Clemente, the secretive editor of the two papers,” Saviano told me, “was condemned to seven years in prison for extortion through the press—that is, he took payments for not circulating information about businessmen and politicians.” Perhaps. But plagiarism either exists or it doesn’t, regardless of the criminal histories of those making the claim.
3—Saviano offers these thanks in the book’s acknowledgements, suggesting that while living under a death sentence—one that supposedly forced a curfew on him while exiled in New York—he was traveling the world, embedding with various federal police forces: “Thanks to the DEA, the FBI, the Guardia Civil, the Mossos d’Esquadra, Scotland Yard, the French Gendarmerie Nationale, Interpol, the Brazilian Polícia Civil, some members of the Mexican Policía Federal, some members of the Colombian Policía Nacional, some members of the Russian Policija, who have accompanied me in their investigations and operations.”
4—It’s interesting to watch Saviano change minor details to make the writing his own. Take this description from Der Spiegel of drug dealers operating in Curaçao: “The central meeting point in Fuik is the ‘Donald Duck Snackbar’ along the town’s dusty main road. This is where ‘moles’ meet to discuss possible deals over a Coke and chicken drumstick.” And here is Saviano’s modification of the Spiegel detail: “The Donald Duck Snackbar, in the suburbs of Fuik, in the southern part of the island, is a paradise as well—for narco-traffickers. Between a sandwich and a caipirinha, they talk business.” Or this story in the Financial Times: “On November 15, 1995, an elegantly dressed Mexican woman in her early 40s entered the headquarters of one of Geneva’s most venerable private banks. Pictet Cie… she was told there was a hitch: an electrical fault was barring access to the vaults…” Here it is in ZeroZeroZero, modified slightly: “On November 15, 1995, an elegant Mexican lady, Paulina Castañon, requests access to her safety deposit box at one of the oldest private banks in Geneva, Pictet Cie. Unfortunately there’s a problem with the vault’s security system, the highly presentable employees tell her.”
5—There is a shoddy English translation of the Notimex story online. I’ve cleaned up what appears to be a computer-generated translation, but the original story, in Spanish, can be read here.
6—In my exchanges with Saviano, he consistently shifted the focus away from questions about plagiarism towards the idea of a “nonfiction novel,” repeatedly invoking Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood and the self-proclaimed inventor of the much-maligned genre, as an author who used elements of fiction while sticking to the facts. It is perhaps not the best comparison, considering the circumstances. As media critic Jack Shafer points out, recent analyses of In Cold Blood have clearly demonstrated that Capote “cut corners, sweetened his material, wrote passages that argue with the facts in his notes and invented scenes.”
7—The Italian journalist pointed to a few passages in Gomorrah that struck him as extremely implausible: “Like the tailor who makes knock-off clothes for the mafia. And who then sees his gown worn by Angelina Jolie at some awards show. In the Gomorrah’s final scene, were you actually floating in a toxic waste dump and hugging a washing machine and screaming for freedom, like you say at the end of Gomorrah? Or was it a ‘literary device’?”
8—“You can find all of the writers and people to whom I owe part of my inspiration in the acknowledgements,” Saviano said in an email. His acknowledgements do not contain reference to “all” his sources—not even close—nor would this qualify as sufficient attribution if it had.