Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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A bad girl, or so she said

I fall easily in love with the women of yesterday – especially those that I discover in my search for what I usually call pulp history.

220px-Emily_HahnFor instance – Shanghai, 1930s, a party in the Italian consulate, one of the guests is a beautiful woman chaperoning a gibbon wearing a diaper.
I put that in my novel, The Ministry of Thunder, and I was told I was silly.
But it’s a historical fact : the gibbon was called Mr Mills.
The beautiful lady was Emily Hahn.

Born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, Emily Hahn was the first woman in America to get a degree in Mining Engineering – basically because she had been told she would never get it, and it was an unsuitable job for a woman.
And indeed it was – in the sense that she was ostracized, and had to find another way to make a living. So she started writing.

Sort of. Continue reading


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Tokyo, from the inside

cover66758-mediumThey used to say I ragazzi di Torino sognano Tokyo poi vanno a Berlino (Kids from Turin dream about Tokyo then go to Berlin).
They even made a movie, about it.
Indeed, the kids in my generation were endlessly fascinated by the East, Asia, and yes, Japan and Tokyo – we were to the forefront of the first anime and manga invasion, after all.
Most of us dreamed about Tokyo, very few made it there for more than a quick package tour, and a lot of others went to Berlin – to this day, my brother’s favorite city.

I travel with books these days, and I had quite some fun with Micael Pronko’s Beauty and Chaos.
Continue reading


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Tracking Marco Polo

51ki+wP7fXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_So it’s summer, and I’ll be spending a lot of my (little) free time reading Tim Severin.
In case you missed him, Severin is an award-winning explorer, traveler and writer who specialized in tracing the steps of famous historical and literary voyagers.

Severin is one of my all-time icons (together with the likes of Jacqes Cousteau, Folco Quilici, Thor Heyerdahl and more recently Barry Clifford), and all of his books are currently available in ebook format for very cheap price tags, so, why not.

And why not start with Tracking Marco Polo, the 1964 chronicle of Severin’s first expedition? Continue reading


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Tientsin, 1934

Know what?
I’m writing.
And believe it or not, despite what I said before, I’m back in China in the 1930s.
But not in Shanghai.
Somewhere up north and east instead.

Troops_of_the_Eight_nations_alliance_1900

Tientsin – which today is called Tianjin – was a Treaty Town, back before the Second World War: the eight countries that had fought against the Boxers in 1901 each got a piece of the city, and maintained there a concession enjoying extraterritorial status.
And this included Italy. Continue reading


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When you go fake you never come back

A few years back, my brother, fresh from his Japanese Language Proficiency exam, got in a job interview for a post in which Japanese was a requirement.

“Here it says you know Japanese,” the interviewer said, waving my brother’s CV. “Why should I believe you?”
“I have a Proficiency Certificate.”
“That’s just a piece of paper, for all I know you printed it in your basement.”
“Try me, do you have a text I can translate…?”
“I don’t know Japanese.”
“Well, if your company has Japanese customers, call one up and I’ll be able to talk to him to your satisfaction.”
“I won’t waste an international call for that. I’ll just assume you don’t know Japanese. CVs are always full of bullsh*t, anyway.”

This sort of self-mutilating preventive mistrust is bleeding into the literary scene – authors post artificially pumped-up bios, publishers doctor sales figures, and everybody seems to think positive reviews are fakes.

Now, my own bio is available by clicking on the link up there in the right corner. It’s not been doctored, fixed or pumped up.
And yet… maybe it’s fun.
Yes, It’s certainly fun.
So, why not devote today’s post to my Official Fake Biography?

Let’s see… Continue reading


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How I revealed the Secrets of the Triads

triadi cover master titoloSounds pulpy, right?
The title, I mean?

Well, it went like this – in 2009 I was asked to submit a learned article about the statistics of organized crime in Hong Kong.
As a paleontologist, I am quite proficient – or so they say – in statistical analysis of ecological data.
The idea was – can we look at crime from an ecological point of view, and define statistically behavioural patterns and rituals in gangland violence?
And should patterns emerge, do they conform to the known rituals of the criminal organization?
Is there a map in the numbers? Continue reading


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The Abode of Snow

What’s Christmas without snow?
Should snow be scarce – just as it is where I am sitting right now – we can always find it in a good book.

Scotsman Andrew Wilson was a Journalist for the Bombay Times and later with the China Mail, in the second half of the 19th century.
Later still he became editor for the Times of India and the Bombay Gazette.
He chronicled the campaigns of Colonel Gordon in China, but his literary fame rests on a collection of travel writings that goes under the title of The Abode of Snow: Observations on a Journey from Chinese Tibet to the Indian Caucasus through the Upper Valleys of the Himalaya.

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You can find it, in a number of handy electronic formats, in the Internet Archive.
It’s quite an interesting read in these long winter nights.