There was a time when it wouldn’t be safe to be sitting at a table with Gianrico Carofiglio. A time when he would not be out in the open like this. A time when, for five years, he travelled by armoured car, escorted by many heavily armed bodyguards. When his every move was planned with military precision.
There’s not a lot of personal freedom when you are an anti-mafia judge. In some ways Carofiglio was as caged as the men he was putting into prison. There were plots against him, one involving a bazooka. There was the haunting precedent of the murders of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino – two judges who had fought the Sicilian mafia and were killed when their cars were blown up in 1992.
He carried a gun for so long that when he decided to stop some years ago he kept forgetting it wasn’t there: “I was always reaching for it … it was such a long time that I was carrying that gun.” It was only recently that he surprised himself by sitting in a restaurant with his back to the entrance. “It was at that moment that I knew, OK, it’s over, I don’t feel unsafe any more.”
Carofiglio has put hundreds of mafioso into prison, first as a judge, then becoming a prosecutor: “I feel more like a cop in my soul.” He was appointed an adviser of the anti-mafia committee in the Italian parliament in 2007 and then served as a senator for the leftist Democratic party from 2008 to 2012, three of those years in opposition to Berlusconi (“That was the funniest period,” he says, “because we could exercise our creativity in opposition.”)
Since 2002 he has been writing crime novels, at first in his spare time, starring a recurring main character, a widely-read, jazz-loving philosophical prosecutor who thinks deeply about good and evil (he has retired this character now). In total he has sold more than 4m copies. He had wanted to write since he was a child, but didn’t until he was in his 40s: “I was so scared of trying I thought I had better really try and understand this problem.” It took nine months to write Involuntary Witness; he had already lived the material. “And then I had my answer, it sold over a million copies all over the world.”
He’s a full-time writer now, and anyone watching him work, says Carofiglio, would think he was “crazy. I can sit writing for maybe six or seven minutes and then I have to stand up and do something and sit again for five minutes, I pour some coffee, I do some exercises, I check emails and then write again. It is very tiring by the end of the day I have done what I had to do.”
Born in Bari, southern Italy, in 1961, he still practises martial arts and karate which he learned with kids from “the most dangerous parts of the city”, some of whom he would later arrest, “a very strange unpleasant feeling, of course”.
Still, he doesn’t believe the poverty in the south the alleged lack of any other choice, is an excuse for the criminal activity.
“It is not totally about poverty,” he says. “Often, not always, criminality is a choice. The social issue is important but it is not the only thing thing to understand of why a boy becomes a criminal. Many of the ones that became a real problem came from good working families.”
He does agree that the mafia grew out of the chroniclawlessness, from a time before unification, “a lack of state authority. The south had been ruled for a long, long time by different foreign countries. That means that the population didn’t learn the attitude or respect for legal power because they didn’t feel they belonged to the state or its rules. If they had a problem they didn’t go to a legal tribunal. They went to the boss.”
Few people have more insight into the mafia mentality, the inner workings of Italy’s organised crime, than someone whose job as a prosecutor was to interrogate men (rarely women) who had been arrested. To be good at this, says Carofiglio, you have to have empathy. “You must be able to use this even with the worst criminals, to see the world through their eyes. This is not sympathy; they are two different words. The worst cops and prosecutors are the ones who have a tendency towards moral judgment because that is very dangerous. It can interfere with your work and obscure your vision.”
He has learned “some things about how a normal person becomes a criminal, then something more than a criminal. I was very raw when I started but I found out the world is much more complicated than the separation between good and evil. Many of these guys are like us. You find good ones and really bad ones and some bad ones who are nice people. You find good criminals who are people who did bad things because they needed a job, but didn’t enjoy it.”
Then there are the ones who “like this kind of life, the money, the power. When we talk about mafia crimes we talk about rational crimes. They are done for commercial and technical reasons, for disturbing a business.”
At the Byron writers festival he was talking about his book, The Cold Summer, a barely fictionalised account of events in 1992, when it was all-out war. “I don’t like to call it a war because the correct frame should be we are the public and they are criminals; we are not fighting you, we are catching you. The very idea of a fight includes an idea of legitimisation. But at that time they were so powerful it was a war.”
He was a young prosecutor then, in 1992, in Puglia. Using transcripts of people he had interviewed throughout his career, central to the story is a “justice co-operator” who is snitching for protection from a boss he has betrayed. And Carofiglio has laid it all out, as it happened, as it was. The crude savagery, paranoid cocaine-snorting bosses, the thuggery, the using fear to gain power. Blood was running through the picturesque white-washed Puglian villages. Where the sea is the deepest blue and the farms centuries old, there was endless, endless killing.
At the same time as the judges were bombed in Palermo, the Puglian gangs were rising, having organised in prison for self-defence against harassment by the Neapolitan Camorra: “When they finished their time and came out in the 90s we had a huge problem.” Petty criminals had now become the sort of people who enslaved prostitutes and sold their babies – a syndicate he busted.
He wrote this book because he wanted people to know the “truth about what happened in my country”. He is infuriated by the glamorising, the mythologising, of a strutting, spiv-suited mafia in films, television, books.
“It is wrong to create mafia guys as heroes,” he says. “The idea of an almighty mafia that is invincible and can do whatever they want is false. The Sopranos, the Godfather, this is not real life. They look like very smart people. This is simply not true. People think they are untouchable. This is not true. They are perfectly touchable and in fact we have touched them very hard. It is just sexier from a media point of view to think of poor cops and prosecutors trying to catch them and not succeeding.”
The truth is that “the real world is without glamour and is just full of shit and blood. You don’t find nobility; you don’t find honour.”
The Sicilian Cosa Nostra were once the most powerful criminal organisation in the world. After the devastation of the bombings the state struck hard. “From a strategic point of view it is a stupid thing for a criminal group to do to murder a judge or a prosecutor or a cop because you provoke an incredibly strong reaction,” says Carofiglio.
It was the beginning of the end of Cosa Nostra: “They were kings, but something people don’t usually know is that all the important bosses have been caught, are in prison, have died, or will die in prison. We have prosecuted and convicted thousands of these people. We won this battle.”