September 2012

David Hammerschlag

nonfiction

Beauty and the Inferno by Roberto Saviano and A Free Man by Aman Sethi

Roberto Saviano's new book, Beauty and the Inferno, is a beautiful object, from the surface through to its depths. The cover is a tasteful overlay of a variety of fonts and prints, with "beauty" written starkly, in all caps, and "the inferno" in a seductive, graffiti-like scrawl. It is the presentation of the author's name, however, in contrasting orange, that heralds his seriousness, a successful alchemy of the often allergic elements of presentation and substance. His thought and fervor are announced from the start, and it's a no-bullshit-tolerated tone that defines this collection of essays, as well as Saviano's last book, the great journalistic-epic Gomorrah, whose presence informs many of the pieces collected here.

Saviano may be the last cutthroat idealist left. He openly disdains the writers who cordon themselves off in the name of art, the writer "whose aim is only to turn out a good book, to construct a story, to polish his words until they have achieved an elegant and recognizable style." Saviano does not wish for grace over honesty, though his rhetoric (translated by the wonderfully named Oonagh Stransky) would not be half as successful as they are without his facility with words or his honed ability to shape events into clear but gritty narratives. Saviano is a man in control of his thoughts, an uncompromising crusader who says what he means and turns writing, a potentially inert and passive art form, into a kind of genuine political action. That he writes with such authority presents him with the central paradox of his current lifestyle: he is on the run from the subjects of Gommorah, the Neapolitan Mafia, a banished activist circling his land and subject.

The standout piece "From Scampia to Cannes" takes Saviano to the titular festival to attend the premiere of Gomorrah's film adaptation. Even at this supposed paradise of glamour, Saviano finds himself at a distance from the experience of others. He cannot relent. The unyielding sensitivity of his moral sense is fully formed and applicable to every scenario, as when he passes on walking down the red carpet, "both because I do not want to and I do not have the right to -- I am a writer, not an actor or director." He looks around Cannes and sees only corruption and madness, and is full of anger and pity at the delusional tourists who come, looking to escape into leisure, only to indulge themselves at hotels and restaurants owned by the Mafia. But Saviano, though occasionally strident, reveals a human, and humane, side to himself. He does not know how to tie a tie, having never worn one before, and must ask his ever-present bodyguard to help him. When joining the cast of the film for a celebratory dinner, the fearless journalist is struck by anxiety: he hasn't been in such a social environment for over two years, and is used to having only his security around for meals. Among the child actors, representatives of the countrymen he pines for, he feels lonely and estranged. He agonizes over whether endorsing the film was even a good idea. But he decides the actors are "rightly proud of their work," as he is, and this feeling for his subjects, in this case a genuine fondness, is unmistakable, as it is elsewhere.

The one-two clobbering of the preface and the opening essay, "Letter to My Land," will be the litmus test for the curious reader. In them, Saviano's purpose and methods are laid down, and anyone picking up the book will find if he is to his or her taste quite quickly. However, whether he is found to be aesthetically pleasing or not, Saviano's exhortations are forceful, and fueled not merely by revulsion or simple anger, but by a great sadness. He is a strong man who is baffled by the deteriorating faculties of his fellows. He claims to understand the desire for peace, for an unexciting life of rationalizations and modest comfort, but even so, asked over and again in a multitude of variations, "Is that really enough for you?"

Aman Sethi's A Free Man is the work of another concerned journalist looking to understand the difficulties of his homeland, but the similarities between his book and Saviano's end there. A Free Man examines the lives of the impoverished in the Delhi bazaar Bara Tooti, with a primary focus on one man, a laborer named Mohammed Ashraf. Far more modest in scope, with few ambitions toward effecting real change, Sethi is nonetheless a talented storyteller, with an eye for the illuminating digression. His portraits are colorful and sharp, and his descriptions of various aspects of lower-class Indian culture (including the harm the mass razing of neighborhoods, sanctioned under a former majority political party, has done) are unfailingly lucid, but these same strengths point to A Free Man's failure. As he says in the afterword, Sethi (an accomplished journalist who has won awards from the Red Cross and went to graduate school at Columbia University) wrote this book not for his subjects or their neighbors, but for angrezi murgi. In other words, he resigned himself to writing it in order to explain the lives of those like Ashraf to white liberals, foreigners who may feel concern for the impoverished he depicts, but will probably do little, if anything, to help them.

This "realistic" path never seems to have occurred to Saviano. I do not know Saviano's politics, but his interrogatives have the air of a committed Communist, one who never paused in urging the people toward rebellion -- only instead of fighting the West or capitalism in the abstract, he has chosen their concrete manifestations. His villains exploit without pretence, without remorse, and his writing aims to be equally fearless in exposing their corruption, as well as the bystanders whose cynicism allows them to act with such wanton abandon.

It is fashionable to discuss the life and death of the novel as it exists in America. For a society obsessed with health and efficiency, this is understandable, as fiction, when seen in competition with television or film, no longer seems to have unique benefits that merit its continuing as a viable form of mass entertainment. Because of this, authors like Jonathan Franzen (whom I do not mean to single out as the sole perpetrator; he's merely one of the more prominent ones) fret over the role of writing, whether it still has purpose. Did it ever? Writers such as David Shields begin to argue for a reevaluation of the art of writing. The ensuing unease of the literati, who see their own ranks swell even as their market appears to dwindle, results in endless debate in their rapidly deoxygenated bubble, with endless factions weighing in and few resolutions. The current revival of the debate over how "nice" a critic should be is only one symptom of this narcissistic self-regard. It begins to seem that working writers only dabble in fiction as a sideline, with criticism assuming primacy over the art it is designed to evaluate. I read about all of this as an interested party, a person who finds solace in reading and writing, and though it's interesting in a middlebrow abstracted sort of way, it all seems sort of beside the point. Where are the artists who don't dither, who desire an audience because they have no other choice but to speak and whose messages are so pressing they are heard, almost inevitably? At least a few are overseas. As concerned as we are, they choose action over dissipation. Sethi still has the curiosity to look into the troubled lives of others, and the optimism to hope he is not alone in this. Saviano's confidence and sheer bulldozing coherence could serve as inspiration to all writers, both of fiction and journalism, as the path around weak speechifying and dutiful responses. Read Saviano and feel hope. Humanity does not have to be composed solely of isolated factions, struggling for meaning without effective responses or reassurance. Writing and writers can be whatever they like, and the declaration that the book of import is dead is a premature one. Gommorah has sold over four million copies and has forced its author into exile. I do not know if this is an enviable position, but it is one I selfishly find comforting. When so many are blind, at least a few are sure of their sight.

Beauty and the Inferno by Roberto Saviano
Maclehose Press
ISBN: 978-0857050106
288 pages

A Free Man by Aman Sethi
W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393088908
240 pages