Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Roberto Saviano, Beauty and The Inferno (2012)

In All The Names, Jose Saramago tells the story of a civil servant in an unnamed city of an unnamed country charged with maintaining the birth, marriage, and death records of a nation's citizens.  The government agency, the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths, operates a data warehouse combining records of both the living and the dead.  Of course, there is a story, a life history, for every one of these citizens and former citizens, but the data warehouse does not record those stories.  In a revolutionary moment, Saramago's protagonist, an equally anonymous "Senor Jose," rebels against his assigned duty and follows his curiosity to uncover the story of one citizen whose data record on an index card prompted his curious interest in a life beyond data. 

Sr. Jose had a secret hobby that propelled him to look deeper into a person than the data in the data warehouse.  He collected news items about famous citizens of his country, and he would supplement his curiosity about the famous by climbing the walls of the Central Registry to collect their birth data, including information about the names of parents, godparents, birthplaces, addresses, and the like.  And one night, in the Central Registry, while collecting the index cards of five famous persons, he inadvertently pulls out a card of a sixth person, an unknown woman, not famous, and he becomes obsessed with learning her story.  He can't turn to the newspapers.  She's not famous, after all.  He puts her index card back in the file along with the five cards of the famous, but not before copying the data on the card.  Sr. Jose "makes a decision," writes Saramago: he decided to look for the unknown woman.  Saramago's discussion of this "decision" assembles in one paragraph a succinct discussion of free will comparatively similar to the way free will (or the lack thereof) is discussed in two recent postings on the subject (see July 15, 2013 post and May 19, 2013 post):

"Senhor Jose's decision appeared two days later.  Generally speaking, we don't talk about a decision appearing to us, people jealously guard both their identity, however vague it might be, and their authority, what little they may have, and prefer to give the impression that they reflected deeply before taking the final step, that they pondered the pros and cons, that after intense mental effort, they finally made a decision.  It has to be said that things never happen like that.  Obviously it would not enter anyone's head to eat without feeling hungry, and hunger does not depend on our will, it comes into being of its own accord, the result of objective bodily needs, it is a physical and chemical problem whose solution, in a more less satisfactory way, will be found in the contents of a plate.  Even such a simple act as going down into the street to buy a newspaper presupposes not only a desire to receive news, which, since it is a desire, is necessarily an appetite, the effect of specific physico-chemical activities in the body, albeit of a different nature, that routine act presupposes, for example, the unconscious certainty, belief or hope that the delivery van was not late or that the newspaper stand is not closed due to illness or to the voluntary absence of the proprietor.  Moreover, if we persist in stating that we are the ones who make our decisions, then we would have to begin to explain, to discern, to distinguish, who it is in us who made the decision and who subsequently carried it out, impossible operations by anyone's standards.  Strictly speaking, we do not make decisions, decisions make us.  The proof can be found in the fact that, though life leads us to carry out the most diverse actions one after the other, we do not preclude each one with a period of reflection, evaluation and calculation, and only then declare ourselves able to decide if we will go out to lunch or buy a newspaper or look for the unknown woman."  Sr. Jose walks out his door and goes to see the street where the woman purportedly lived. Sr. Jose's search to find the woman named on the sixth index card becomes an obsession to learn her story, driven by what Jaak Panksepp calls our Seeking system urges (see May 19, 2013 post).

Consider the life of an exceptional journalist, an investigative journalist who wants to tell a story, not just report data.    Roberto Saviano made a decision to investigate and expose the Camorra, one of the Mafia clans in his native Naples area of Italy.   Saviano probably did "reflect deeply before taking the final step," to borrow a phrase from Saramago, After all, inquiry and publicity of a Mafia sect knowingly undertakes a risk to self-preservation.  He knows that the people he writes about in his book Gamorrah  are killers and will not hesitate to kill him if it suits them.  He knows this; he must have reflected deeply about this.  This is, in the words of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, "self-determination.  (See July 15, 2013 post).  Saviano assented to his course of action in exposing the Camorra, although he may very well have been driven by his Seeking system and perhaps modulated by his Fear system.  (See May 19, 2013 post).  Jose Saramago described Roberto Saviano as someone who "mastered the art of living."  (See July 17, 2011 post).  He is referring to Saviano's "courage," which refers to a mental persistence to persevere in the face of fear.  Courage has to be found in the neocortex of the brain, not the subcortical emotional systems that Panksepp finds controlling.  But yes, Senhor Jose made a decision that probably did not involve much reflection to search for the story of a woman who is more than a piece of data; Roberto Saviano made a decision to confront fear and seek truth that undoubtedly involved substantial reflection.  Their intent is different:  Senhor Jose is out to satisfy his own curiosity and perhaps derive some private reflection on the meaning of his life; Roberto Saviano is not interested in merely satisfying some private need, but to engage in social communication with a broader public, perhaps to arouse the public's reflection to some collective action.

"A writer can never be a good person," writes Saviano.  "Often he comes to writing precisely because he realizes he cannot be a good person.  He ends up writing with a sense of guilt for not being able to change things, in the hope that his indirect actions will multiply in his readers' consciousness, that they might act in his stead or alongside him, creating the ultimate dream of a community of people who understand, feel and walk together.  People who live." 

Beauty and The Inferno represents Roberto Saviano's further reflection on his infernal life in the wake of the publication of Gamorrah, in which he lives a life guarded by police charged with protecting his life from the threats of the Camorra.  The parallels with the life of Salman Rushdie following the Iranian fatwa issued after publication of The Satanic Verses immediately come to mind, and the parallel is not lost on Saviano who writes an essay about his invitation to join Rushdie for a panel discussion at the Swedish Academy.   But Beauty and The Inferno also reads a bit like Profiles in Courage.  And among all the names that Saviano recognizes for leading a courageous life not dissimilar from his, some of whom suffered a fate we call premature death, include:  Joe Pistone who squealed on the American mafia; Giancarlo Siani who also wrote about the Camorra; Uwe Johnson; Gustav Herling; Varlam Shalamov; Anna Politkovskaya.  Names that may have remained anonymous pieces of data, but Saviano has captured their stories.

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