It’s about time we talked about Sandokan.
Sandokan is a pirate, created by the fevered mind of Italian swashbuckler/adventure writer Emilio Salgari.
Salgari was born in Verona in 1862, the year after the unification of Italy, and died committing seppuku in 1911.
With over 200 books in his catalog, he was a poor man, and he blamed his publishers for his poverty – he probably had his reasons: not only he was a certified best-seller, but he is still one of the 40 most translated authors right now, 107 years after his death.
Salgari was a strange man, that lived most of his life in Turin – where I was born – and the farther East he ever went was the local library. But he was animated by a colossal imagination, that fuelled his stories and hooked thousands of readers. He wrote pirate stories and swashbucklers, westerns, exotic adventure and the occasional Verne-esque science fiction.
Weirdly enough, while Italy was gearing up for its ill-fated and belated Imperial Adventure, Salgari was an anti-imperialist, and a champion of the underdog. His heroes are normally outsiders, outcasts and people that’s been robbed, cheated and betrayed and is coming back for revenge. Pirates, adventurers, swashbucklers all.
I know a few Salgari enthusiast in the English-speaking world, but he’s a big deal in the Latin countries – in Italy, in Spain, in South America.
Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez were fanboys.
Umberto Eco too.
One of Salgari’s most enduring characters is Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia, a South China Sea pirate with a big axe to grind against James Brooke, the White Rajah himself, that’s portrayed as an all-around scumbag worthy of a Bond villain. And indeed, in the TV adaptation of the novels that I watched as a kid in the ‘70s, Brooke was played by Adolfo Celi, aka Emilio Largo in Thunderball.
With his trusted sidekick Yanez de Gomera, a Portuguese adventurer, Sandokan plies his trade on the sea, but he is basically a gentleman pirate, one that is all for kicking British ass but is also ready to take a trip to India to fight against the thuggee.
But he also finds time to fall in love with Marianna, “The Pearl of Labuan”, the daughter of a British lord and an Italian aristocrat.
Swashbucklers, filled with blood and thunder and a certain tragic streak that hints at Salgari’s own melancholic, possibly manic-depressive nature.
I often think Emilio Salgari and Robert E. Howard would have got along famously, brothers in their faith in the final darkness destined to engulf all of our civilization, and in their passion for the savage, the odd man out.
Salgari’s style is older than Howard’s, he is still an author of the 19th century, but the two men were clearly on the same page.
What set Salgari apart was on one hand his total belief in his fictional universe, his conviction – just like Edgar Rice Burroughs believed in Barsoom and in John Carter and enjoyed telling those stories, so Salgari’s dedication to his characters and adventures was absolute. On the other hand, those trips to the library were put to good use, and Salgari was able to fake it with the best of them, building a believable world by tactically placing bits of naturalistic or cultural color in his stories.
The Sandokan series includes the novels:
The Mystery of the Black Jungle (I Misteri della Jungla Nera, 1895)
The Pirates of Malaysia (I Pirati della Malesia, 1896)
The Tigers of Mompracem (Le Tigri di Mompracem, 1900)
The Two Tigers (Le due Tigri, 1904)
The King of the Sea (Il Re del Mare, 1906)
Quest for a Throne (Alla conquista di un impero, 1907)
The Reckoning (Sandokan alla riscossa, 1907)
Return to Mompracem (La riconquista del Mompracem, 1908)
The Brahman (Il Bramino dell’Assam, 1911)
An Empire Crumbles (La caduta di un impero, 1911)
Yanez’ Revenge (La rivincita di Yanez, 1913)
As far as I know, only the first five were translated in English. You can get a taste of Salgari’s style from the first three chapters of The Tigers of Mompracem.
And Sandokan and his friend Yanez, and Kammamuri the Snake Hunter, were certainly there when I started putting together the world of Hope & Glory – and indeed, there is a Sandokan lookalike gracing the cover of the Player’s Handbook.
After all, Salgari might have liked the idea of a world emerging from chaos, Western civilization shattered, and the heroes taking the best of East and West to build a new future.
Or maybe not, who knows.
He was a weird one, was Emilio Salgari.
But if you like swashbucklers, and exotic adventure, beautiful women and flashing blades, maybe checking out Emilio Salgari might be a good idea.