Skip to main content
book review

Colombian police personnel from an anti-narcotics unit custody part of some five tons of cocaine seized in an illegal laboratory producing cocaine hydrochloride belonging to the ERPAC (Ejercito Popular Antisubversivo de Colombia) criminal gang, on October 13, 2011.GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP / Getty Images

Being that I write about books for a living – or for a chunk of that living, anyway – people tend to ask me what I'm reading. Usually the answer comes with a resigned, half-embarrassed shrug. "Oh, I dunno, just some dumb book about some guy" or, worse, "Um, it's some book about how now we're all connected, but also, like, maybe too connected?" But over the past few weeks, the question has been met with a frenzied, sputtering enthusiasm. Talking about Roberto Saviano's ZeroZeroZero makes me sound like I'm all ripped up on rails: mind zipping from one thing to the next, thoughts coming quicker than my ability to express, eyes dancing around in my head, hands gesturing wildly. Fitting, I guess, for describing a book about cocaine.

Books about drugs, and narcotics trafficking, and black markets, are dime-a-dozen. But Roberto Saviano isn't. Since the 2006 publication of his book Gomorrah – an investigation into the operations of Italy's Camorra crime syndicate – Saviano has been living in a secret location, accompanied at all times by police escorts. (In the acknowledgments, Saviano thanks Salman Rushdie, "who taught me how to be free even when surrounded by seven armed bodyguards.")

Rarer than Saviano's fearlessness is the writing itself. That his style is so difficult to describe speaks, I suppose, to its inimitability. Reading Saviano is like being told a story by an especially lofty, loquacious guy at a bar. It's a guy who's really good with names and details, but most of all with narrative thrust. It's a guy who can nimbly spin weighty turns of phrase, such as "cowardice is a choice, fear is a state of mind," little quips that balance oh-so-precariously on that thin line between the insightful and the totally meaningless. It's a guy who seems to so comprehensively and almost innately understand the story he's telling that he can give himself over entirely to the telling itself.

In plenty of places, Saviano's style lapses into mock-philosophical self-parody. Reading a sentence such as, "Violence is self-absorbing; it voluntarily degrades itself in order to renew itself," one imagines Saviano, arms crossed across his chest, proudly nodding at his latest contrived profundity, while a dog-eared copy of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian gazes knowingly from the bookshelf behind him. Still: Better for a book like this to be over-written (often hilariously so, such as when he calls cheekbones "the sentinels of the face") than starchy and under-written, bogged down by facts and figures and other statistical bric-a-brac.

Of course, ZeroZeroZero is packed with the sort of jaw-dropping facts that tend to clutter up books about the international drug trade. You know, how in the early eighties, Pablo Escobar's Medellin was spending $2,500 a month just on elastic bands to bundle cash, how drug wars in Mexico claimed anywhere from 70,000 lives to nearly twice that (depending who you ask) between 2006 and 2012, how something like 97.4 per cent of the revenue from Colombian drug operations is regularly laundered into legitimate banks in the United States and Europe, how in 2011 Barcelona cops seized 625 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a shipment of coffee, and so on. But what really grabs Saviano are the stories, the people (people such as Escobar, El Chapo, El Tony, and dozens of other international criminal trailblazers) and the relationship between the two, "how individual stories can reflect the destiny of an entire continent."

Saviano moves across continents, from South to North America, from Italy to Eastern Europe and Africa, to give a suffocating sense of just how entrenched the global cocaine trade is: how it props up economies, nation-states and even major banks in the wake of financial crisis. "Tracking the paths of drug trafficking and money laundering makes you feel like you can measure the truth of things," he writes. Or as the book's tantalizing tagline pitches the project, "Look at cocaine and all you see is powder. Look through cocaine and you see the world."

He's not interested in the whole "banality of evil thing," preferring to give shape and character to the "global mechanism" of narcotics trafficking and money laundering. Still, Saviano comprehends this mechanism as if he's dismantled it and rebuilt it himself. He sees things as if he's flying high above them in a little DC-9 (a favourite aircraft of narco-traffickers), able to understand the networks and highways and byways of the global drug trade that often seem inscrutable at ground-level.

"Cocaine," Saviano writes in one of his book's several poetic verse interludes, "is the body's fuel. It is life cubed." Which, well … okay. Sure. What emerges more convincingly reading

ZeroZeroZerois how cocaine is the fuel – the "white petrol" – of whole global economies and transnational ideological super-systems. Cocaine, writes Saviano, is "like capitalism itself." It crosses borders, adapts to social and economy changes and fleeces itself in the pleasant guise of pop culture (whether in the mythic quality of movies such as Scarface or the Mickey Mouse heads stamped on the bricks of coke themselves).

Saviano's study of cocaine may seem like a microcosmic analysis. But it is both micro and macro, with the illegal drug trade serving as a part of a larger global mechanism, while also embodying that same mechanism in all its shrewdness, brutality and violence. Cocaine is the world's fuel. It is capitalism cubed.