Roberto Saviano dedicates his book to his police bodyguards, for he’s a writer in that small and exclusive club: one with a target on his back. While Salman Rushdie, another famous alumni of the club, dared to say something critical about, Saviano took on Camorrah in his previous bestseller Gamorrah. His previous book was a passionately angry screed, in part based on his own personal experiences, against the Neapolitan mafia that were poisoning his home town of Naples. His anger dripped from the pages of that tome and so it was with similar expectations that I approached his latest offering, an examination of the international cocaine trade.
Zero Zero Zero is in some ways the better book. It’s more sober, reflecting the author’s own distance from the subject. Before reading the book I saw an interview Saviano did with the BBC’s Hardtalk programme, where he explained that while he couldn’t walk the streets like he used to, his contacts with the police were now ironically better. He said that he was able to interview leading narcotics officers throughout the world and the book certainly reflects both that approach and that level of access. Saviano surveys the cocaine trade from Colombia, through the Mexican cartels and the vicious narco-wars that have wracked that nation, through transit through Africa and into the hands of ‘Ndranghetta, not the most powerful of Italy’s mafias. It’s an impressive achievement and once again he doesn’t shy away from naming names.
The problem is that while Zero Zero Zero is undoubtedly a good book, a great book even, Saviano is increasingly playing in a crowded field. Other writers and journalists have similar levels of access and have written similar works. Don Winslow’s seminal novels The Power of The Dog and The Cartel, describe the tragedy that is modern Mexico in heartbreakingly poetic prose, while a new documentary film Cartel Land is bringing the story to the silver screen. John Dickie has published a number of books on Italy’s mafias, including the ‘Ndranghetta, while the cocaine trade more widely has been covered as far back as Gary Webb in his work the Dark Alliance.
Gamorrah was fresh exactly because Saviano had lived it, walked the streets of Naples, seen where the bodies were gunned down, smelt the fetid air of a countryside polluted by industrial waste ferried down from the north of Italy by a criminal sub-culture so debased that they were happy to poison their own hinterland fro a fast buck. Zero Zero Zero simply can’t compete.
In short Zero Zero Zero is a great book and I award it four stars. It’s just that Gamorah was better.