At the turn of the last century, Salgari was stranded in Turin, former capital of Italy but hardly the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Trapped in a rather anonymous office job as a clerk, Salgari dreamed up exotic adventures and put them to paper.
Back when I was a kid I did not like Salgari very much – his were the sort of books that old aunts with fake smiles pushed on you saying “You will absolutely love this story!”, and making it clear that anything less than absolute love for Sandokan, or Jolanda, would cause no end of grief in the family.
So sue me, I did not love him that much – and yet no one was any worse for it.
Salgari’s stories are operatic and melodramatic, his main characters often torn between the need for revenge and unattainable passion – their habit of falling desperately in love with the daughters of the characters they have sworn to kill is disquieting.
And yet I have here on my shelf the centenary edition of the four Salgari classics – I Misteri della Giungla Nera, I Pirati della Malesia, Le Tigri di Mompracem and Il Corsaro Nero.
Emilio Salgari wrote of pirates and corsairs, of tiger hunters and snake charmers, compensating subtlety with enthusiasm. Apparently he was often seen, oh his apartment’s balcony, enacting scenes from his forthcoming stories with the help of his kids.
Many of his books were turned into movies, and apparently he was one of Che Guevara‘s favorite writers.
Salgari remains an interesting read because he was a clearly anti-colonial author – he sides with the natives, with the ones that had been dealt a bad hand by Fate, but kept running on pride and courage.
And he is very nasty with Sir James Brooke, the White Rajah, that he casts as the main villain in his Indian-Malaysian series.
He also wrote Verne-like science fiction, westerns and historical adventures, but his main line was exotic adventure.
A pathologic liar (which is probably unsurprising, given his trade), Salgari was also a very unhappy individual – success as a writer, when it came, did not equal economic stability. To pay his bills, Salgari had to write huge volumes of narrative for paltry royalties.
His stories have a nihilistic streak that became more accentuated as his series progress, usually ending in battle and devastation, the good guys often not surviving their final revenge.
A subject to depression, he killed himself in 1911, committing a sui generis form of harakiri with a razor, in line with what one of his doomed heroes would have done.
He left a message to his publishers
“To you that grew rich on my skin, keeping me and my family in a continuous state of semi-poverty or worse, I only ask that as compensation for the fortune I made you, you’ll take care of my funeral. I salute you by breaking my pen.”
I still don’t like him that much.
But I was thinking about him, last night, as I lay here stranded in the backwater hills of Astigianistan, in a place where a 70K internet connection is a luxury, stuck in a cul-de-sac and trying to dig a way out writing adventure stories.
I still don’t like him, but I feel a kind of kinship.