MANTUA, Italy — In 2006, Italian authorities informed Roberto Saviano that for his own safety, he’d need to live under police protection for a few weeks. Over 16 years later, the guards are still there.
Saviano, a well-known Italian author, screenwriter and journalist, hasn’t committed a crime. On the contrary, his 2006 book “Gomorrah” was a thorough work of investigative journalism exposing the inner workings of the Camorra mafia organization and how it intertwines drug trafficking, racketeering and international finance to hold the entire region of Campania in its grip. The book, which has since been turned into an award-winning film as well as a television series, has earned Saviano accolades from critics — and death threats by mob bosses.
Following its publication, Saviano was forced to go into hiding. Accompanied by bodyguards around the clock, he uprooted himself from his family and went on the lam, far from his old stomping grounds and the assassins of the Casalesi clan, one of the Camorra mafia families he’d exposed in the book.
Now, Israeli comic book artist Asaf Hanuka has teamed up with the Naples-born writer to lay bare a part of Saviano’s life that’s never been revealed before. Graphic novel-meets-confessional, “I’m Still Alive” is an intimate tale that takes shape through Hanuka’s colorful imagery, illustrating Saviano’s painful and often contradictory existence.
Originally published in Italian by Bao Publishing as “Sono ancora vivo” in late 2021, the book’s English edition hit shelves on October 11, and a Hebrew version is in the works.
Hanuka, who lives in Tel Aviv, was excited to team up with the renowned Saviano — despite the potential threat to his own life that came with working on another mafia-related book together with a wanted man.
“This book was the most important challenge of my career,” Hanuka, 48, told The Times of Israel in an interview earlier this year ahead of the book’s English publication. “I captured his writing — which is deep and full of cultural references — in my drawings. His stories have something universal, they are lessons for life and they often presuppose another level of reading, a subtext to interpret.”
The 43-year-old Saviano is of Sephardic heritage on his mother’s side, and has said that he inherits his storytelling abilities from his grandfather, Carlo – though his Judaism isn’t directly addressed in “I’m Still Alive.”
With past collaborations with Israeli authors and directors including Etgar Keret and Ari Folman, Hanuka was impressed by the level of realism with which Saviano described the Camorra in the 2006 book that earned him a death sentence from the mafia syndicate.
“I read [‘Gomorrah’] and saw the movie,” Hanuka said. “I was struck that the mafia organization depicted by Roberto lacks the Hollywood glamor I was used to. There is something in his artistic approach that is very direct, honest, poetic and tied to real life.”
It’s a life that’s all too real for Saviano, whose bounty by the Camorra brings to mind the 1989 fatwa issued against author Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini for the book “The Stanic Verses.” In August, Rushdie barely escaped with his life after being stabbed onstage at a lecture event in Chautauqua, New York, decades after his death sentence was issued.
Saviano, meanwhile, has had a harrowing 16 years, seldom sleeping in the same place for more than a few nights and unable to emerge in public unescorted. While he has been offered asylum in a number of foreign countries on the condition that he cease his anti-mafia activism, the author has declined, feeling compelled to continue on his vendetta.
In May of 2021, a court in Rome found Casalesi boss Francesco Bidognetti and his lawyer Michele Santonastaso guilty of issuing threats against Saviano. In an interview with Italian media outlet Corriere della Sera, Saviano expressed his disappointment with what he saw as poor media coverage of the verdict.
“It’s an important ruling because it has certified that a writer can scare the mafia clans with his words,” Saviano told the paper. “I expected a media debate about this topic, but the news went unnoticed. The response to this sentencing was, ‘It’s stuff we already know.’”
Hanuka said that the idea for the collaboration on “I’m Still Alive” began with Saviano’s publisher, Michele Foschini, who had seen his autobiographical comic “The Realist.” When Saviano got his hands on the book, said Hanuka, “he thought that the visual language I used in the book might be suitable for telling his story.”
The two embarked on a series of meetings — though with nothing regarding the author’s safety left to chance, Hanuka said, these had to be scheduled months in advance.
“When he arrived, the police were always with him,” Hanuka said. “Once we went for a coffee in a park in Milan; he was surrounded by cops. It’s a tragic aspect of his existence — Roberto is alive, but he doesn’t feel alive because there is no spontaneity in his life. He has paid a very high price for his choices.”
The project ended up taking seven years to complete, with Saviano and Hanuka exchanging stories and sketches throughout.
“First Roberto wrote some texts and sent them to me, then I made some drawings and so on,” said Hanuka. “He has the ability to identify the core of all the projects in which he is involved — cinema, theater, television, books, and investigative journalism. My drawings are internal and emotional landscapes full of symbols and surreal elements, and Roberto’s stories always had a brilliant visual idea that made my work easier.”
Hanuka’s images are both real and dreamlike, with bright colors alternating with black and white to create contrasts.
“I wanted to use colors as a tool to facilitate reading and create a hierarchy in the texts and drawings,” said the artist. “I separated each episode and first drew everything in black and white before I gave a color to each story. When I worked on the chapter dedicated to the family, in which Roberto and his father ride bicycles to his grandfather’s house, I realized that black and white wasn’t right and I opted for a sepia tone to evoke memories.”
“It was difficult to find the right key to evoke emotions and play with symbols,” he said. “It was an ambitious and complicated task, but at the same time interesting and fascinating.”
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