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by 'The Pirate Lady': writer/editor
Salgari: Literature’s Invisible Man
books Sartre had read as a child were the
books we read in the Latin world, which
I read as a child: Emilio Salgari, without
whom there would be no Italian, French,
Spanish, or Latin American Literature." ~ Carlos Fuentes,
Paris Review, Vol. 81, Winter 1981
praise from one of Latin America’s foremost
writers for a man virtually unknown in the English-speaking
world. A remarkable statement given that no Italian
literary scholar in the 80s would have made that
remark, Mr. Salgari did not appear in Encyclopaedias
of World Literature until the late 1990s, if at
all. So what would cause Carlos Fuentes to say
something like that? Quotes like these:
I found some of Mr. Salgari's books
in an old trunk in my grandfather's
basement, that trunk was the only
legacy of my father who abandoned
the family when I was very young.
I read those books with a flashlight
under the blanket in bed and those
strong characters and great adventures
shaped my taste in books for a long
time.” ~ Isabel Allende
my childhood I got the best of my
information about exotic countries
not from textbooks but by reading
the adventure novels of Jules Verne,
Emilio Salgari and Karl May."
~ Umberto Eco
the summer of 1904, at age five,
my mother gave me The Black Corsair
and The Pirates of Malaysia, books
I still own to this day. So at age
five I entered those exotic worlds
that Salgari created in his numerous
novels. I think I even preferred
those stories to the more popular
and more sophisticated works of
Jules Verne." ~ Jose Luis Borges
modern writers from Italy, Spain and Latin America
first fell in love with stories and storytelling
by reading Salgari’s adventures. Gabriel
Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Pablo Neruda,
Paco Ignacio Taibo, Caludio Magris, and Arturo
Perez Reverte are but a few of those that read
Salgari’s novels in their youth, novels
that got them hooked on reading. "He delivered
excitement and stimulated the imagination of
Italian readers,” wrote adventure writer
Vittorio G. Rossi, “providing a sharp
contrast to the stagnant literature of his times.”
But who was this man that influenced so many?
The Emilio Salgari I grew up with was larger
than life. His biography in his own words:
was born in Verona in 1862 to a family of modest
merchants. At age 14, I entered the Naval Academy
in Venice. I obtained my Captain’s papers
at age 17 and began to travel the Seven Seas.
I retired at 26 and returned to Verona to become
editor of the Nuova Arena where I wrote my first
stories: Tay See, The Tiger of Malaysia and
others. A few years later I became editor of
the Arena then at 32 I retired from journalism
and dedicated myself to writing novels. At 34,
I was knighted by Her Majesty Queen Margherita
of Savoy for my contributions to literature.”
claimed to have travelled throughout the American
West where he met Buffalo Bill; he had explored
the Sudan, lived at the Mahdi’s court,
loved Indian princesses, sailed among the many
islands of the Far East. Here was a man of action
that had explored the world and lived many adventures,
adventures he would use for the basis of his
80 plus novels and hundreds of short stories
to captivate readers worldwide. At dinner parties
he regaled his hosts with tales from his many
voyages, guests to his home would often be shown
artefacts acquired in far off lands. Throughout
the 20th century illustrations of him on the
back of his novels showed him clad in his captain’s
uniform. His memoirs were filled with adventures
in the most exotic lands. A remarkable life,
envied by many.
that very little of it was true. He did meet
Buffalo Bill, but at Sherman’s Wild West
Show in Verona, not, as he claimed, while exploring
Nebraska. He was knighted for his stories, that
much was true; he founded the adventure genre
in Italy, his tales captivating young and old,
and inspiring many to take up the pen.
what stories they were. Adventures in the American
West, Polar Exploration, tales of civil war
in Cuba and the Philippines, tales of love and
adventure in Africa, Australia and the Far East.
But he is most remembered for the pirates he
created, Sandokan and the Black Corsair, characters
known throughout Italy and Latin America even
by those who have not read their adventures.
like his many novels, Salgari’s autobiography
was a mixture of fact and fabrication. He drew
his facts from encyclopaedias, maps and journals.
He collected stories from sailors returning
to port and passed them off has his own. Though
he proclaimed to be a captain, Salgari’s
had actually failed out of The Naval Institute.
He made only one sea voyage in his life, a three
month journey from Verona to Brindisi aboard
a merchant ship. When he came back, he showed
his friends various artefacts from his travels
in the Far East, artifacts he had purchased
from some vendor along the Italian coast. The
legend had begun; a legend he would promote
and defend for the rest of his life.
was first hired as a young reporter for La Nuova
Arena in 1882. The following year, he published
his first serialized story La Tigre della Malesia,
a tale of love and adventure that saw the birth
of his most legendary characters: Sandokan a
pirate, known as The Tiger of Malaysia, Marianna,
his beloved, and Yanez de Gomera, Sandokan’s
loyal friend, a chain-smoking, unflappable Portuguese
adventurer based on himself. It would later
be edited and reissued as Le Tigri di Mompracem,
translated into numerous languages and become
popular worldwide. For writing that series,
Salgari was given a cake and a bottle of wine
in addition to his usual salary.
was so well received the owners of the Nuova Arena had
Mr. Salgari write serials full time. His tales increased
the paper’s readership to the point where a rival
paper, The Arena , lured him away by offering him an
editor’s position. As his popularity increased,
jealous rivals began to dig for dirt. A reporter from
another paper, discovered that Salgari had never graduated
from the Naval Academy and derided “Captain Salgari”
by calling him a “cabin boy“ in an article.
a talented swordsman, challenged him to a duel
the next morning. He made quick work of his
opponent, sending him to the hospital after
a few rapid exchanges. Though victorious, Salgari
was imprisoned for dueling and spent six days
in jail, but he emerged more popular than ever.
At age 34 Mr. Salgari moved to Torino where
he concentrated on writing novels for a series
of publishing houses. He wrote 84 in all, of
which three are considered his greatest classics:
misteri della jungle nera: The Mystery of
Jungle, a story about a tiger hunter that
falls in love with a young woman held prisoner
by the Thugs, a band of stranglers that
worship the goddess Kali.
Emilio Salgari wrote
more than 200 adventure stories and novels, many of which are considered
classics. His tales are all set in exotic locations, with heroes
from a wide variety of cultures. Though he claimed to be well traveled,
he never left Italy.
The Sandokan Series
Black Corsair Series
Verne Titles - English
corsaro nero: The Black Corsair,
about an Italian nobleman Emilio di Roccanera turned pirate
to avenge the murder of his brothers. The Corsair series was
eventually expanded over a series of five novels.
Le Tigri di Mompracem where Sandokan “The Tiger
of Malaysia” the most feared pirate in Malaysia falls
in love with Marianna, half Italian, half British, The Pearl
of Labuan, the niece of one of his most hated enemies. It
is Italy’s second most famous love story, a story that
spawned 10 sequels and was the blueprint for the majority
of Salgari’s tales of adventure.
hero, usually a pirate, a bandit, an outlaw or a rebel, falls in
love with a young woman who is the daughter of an enemy or imprisoned
by an evil foe. Separated by “an abyss” the hero will
face assorted trials: fending off enemies, battling wild beasts,
sailing through storms, fighting battles on land and at sea until
in the end, love triumphs. Sound familiar? Salgari, a native of
Verona, rewrote Romeo and Juliet several times, setting their love
against an exotic backdrop, to popular acclaim.Where he differed
from other adventure writers of his era was in his treatment of
women. Most female characters in adventure novels at the turn of
the century were love interests that would invariably need to be
rescued at some point. Strong women most often appeared as evil
rulers or enemy spies. Salgari’s views were progressive. His
women could hunt, shoot, fish, or wield a sword with the best of
their male counterparts.
Dolores del Castillo ran guns to the Spanish past the American
blockade during the Cuban War of Independence in Salgari’s
The Captain of the Yucatan. Shima, the daughter of a Japanese
daimyo, blows up a Russian ship during the Russian Japanese War
in The Heroine of Port Arthur. His Capitan Tempesta,
is a story about a young woman looking for her missing lover in
the Holy Land during the Crusades. Disguised as a male knight,
she quickly earns the reputation as the best and bravest warrior
on the battlefield. Then of course, there is Yolanda, the
daughter of the Black Corsair.
such tales, filled with pirates, adventurers, explorers and nonstop
action, Salgari’s novels soon began to be translated worldwide.
His novels spread throughout Europe: France, Spain, Russia, Germany.
In Latin America he rivalled Jules Verne.
personal life however was not as fortunate. In 1892, Salgari married
the love of his life, the theatre actress Ida Peruzzi. The couple
had four children. But despite the great success of his novels,
financial security and social status always eluded them. Though
knighted and widely read, Salgari’s writing style was always
panned by critics and academics who considered it crude and unrefined.
In early 1903 Ida began to show signs of dementia. Medical bills
began to mount, keeping Salgari chained to his desk, writing prodigiously
to make ends meet. He translated novels, edited his own adventure
newspaper and wrote under a couple of aliases to bring imore money.
At one point, too poor to purchase a replacement, he wrote with
a broken fountain pen, held together by a piece of string.
his wife grew worse, Salgari too began to suffer. His imagination,
the source of so many stories, began to falter and he feared he
was losing his ability to write. In 1910 he attempted suicide, but
was rescued and nursed back to health. In 1911 his wife was committed
to an insane asylum. Salgari found life without her unbearable.
Six days after she was committed, he got up one morning, said goodbye
to his children, then strolled to the park, drew out a knife and
committed seppuku, the traditional suicide of the Japanese samurai.
He was 49.
final words were for his publishers, “I ask of you that have
grown rich off my hide, all the while keeping my family in poverty,
to at least have the decency to pay for my funeral.” But though
the dreamer was gone the stories did not die. Demand for his adventures
continued to grow. Publishers found lost manuscripts, hired ghost
writers to work from outlines Salgari had left unfinished or simply
had them create stories from scratch. In all, there were 64 novels
attributed to Salgari after his death, written by authors long forgotten.
Sandokan remained his most popular character, other writers were
eager to write new stories about The Tiger of Malaysia, a fate shared
by few characters in popular fiction: Sherlock Holmes, Conan, and
the various Star Trek crews.
Salgari and family
he lived, Salgari would have seen his stories capture a new medium.
Just three years after his death, one of his novels would help revolutionize
the world of film.
the landmark Italian epic directed by Giovanni Pastrone bears
many similarities to Emilio Salgari's 1908 adventure novel Cartagine
in Fiamme (Carthage is Burning). Salgari had never been employed
or credited as a writer; however, it is evident that scenes and
plot points had been “borrowed” from his novel. Gabriele
D'Annunzio was billed as the official screenwriter, but D'Annunzio
had been brought on board to help revise the film after it had
been shot, earning the credit by changing the title to Cabiria,
changing the name of some of the characters and rewriting the
captions, using more grandiloquent expressions than those originally
employed by Pastrone. The three-hour movie with its grand proportions
and cast of thousands created a sensation throughout Italy. It
pioneered epic screen production, camera movements, and foreshadowed
the work of D.W. Griffith, Eisenstein, De Mille and others. It
would be the first of many films based on his work.
majority of Salgari’s big screen adaptations were taken
from the pirate tales he had so skillfully brought to life. Just
as Hollywood had its pirate swashbuckling era in the 20s, 30s
and 40s, the early days of the Italian film industry brought many
a high sea adventure to the screen.
Mr. Salgari's Corsair adventures have been the basis for over
20 films, including 8 adaptations of The Black Corsair.
In the 1920s Vitale De Stefano made a series of silent films based
on Il corsaro nero and it's four sequels. Amleto Palermi's 1936
version spared no expense. Ships were built specifically for the
movie, the director filming a live boarding raid on location.
It was popular throughout Italy and Latin America and subsequently
remade as El corsario negro by Chano Urueta in Mexico
in the 1940s.
movies fed book sales, which were also adapted to comic books
and Salgari adventure magazines. Salgari’s legend as explorer,
adventurer, and writer knew no bounds. By the 1950s he was the
best selling Italian author worldwide. Dante was number 2. As
the Italian film industry grew, directors and producers that had
grown up on Salgari’s novels decided to try to bring his
novels to an American audience. First up was one of Salgari’s
unsinkables: The Mystery of the Black Jungle. In 1955
Lex Barker appeared as the tiger hunter Tremal-Naik in the 1955
B-movie of the same name. Though it did well enough in Europe
and Latin America to spawn a sequel, it failed to make much of
an impression in the US.
the 1960’s Primo Zeglio directed Morgan the Pirate,
a Spaghetti Swashbuckler starring Steve Reeves. Reeves was the
Arnold Schwarzenegger of his generation, a body builder that had
risen to fame in the popular Hercules Sword and Sandal films.
Even President Kennedy was said to have been a fan. Morgan was
a great hit, generating novelizations and comic books in the US.
Impressed by that success, MGM decided to venture into a coproduction
to bring Salgari’s most legendary creation to the screen.
would finally be introduced to American audiences. Reeves was
cast in the lead, exchanging sandals for pirate boots and a turban.
Umberto Lenzi would direct, the locations were exotic, there were
battle scenes showing off Reeve’s great strength and a cigarette-smoking
chimp for a bit of levity. Sandokan the Great hit theatres in
1963 but though popular it did not generate the response Morgan
had received. It made enough to generate a sequel The Pirates
of Malaysia. Sandokan was modified for American tastes, Reeves
got rid of the turban and his boots were replaced by sandals,
perhaps to appeal to fans of his Hercules. But America took little
Sandokan movies were made in the mid-sixties. Ray Danton took
his turn playing the pirate in Luigi Capuano's Sandokan against
the Leopard of Sarawak (aka Throne of Vengeance.) and
later reprised the role along with most of the original cast in
Sandokan Fights Back (aka The Conqueror and the Empress).
But they too failed to impress.
Salgari’s characters failed to capture North American audiences,
his style of storytelling, ast-paced, filled with great battles,
blood, violence and punctuated with humour laid the foundations
for a genrethat became quite popular across the Atlantic: The
Steve Reeves - Sandokan
director Sergio Leone’s outlaw heroes were inspired
by Salgari's piratical adventurers as were the plots and
characters in movies by Primo Zeglio, Umberto Lenzi and
Sergio Sollima. Leone’s work would influence numerous
directors: George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorsese
and Quentin Tarantino among them. Emilio Salgari, Grandfather
of the Spaghetti Western, laid the foundations for the kinds
of movies that helped to make actors like Clint Eastwood
an international star.
took a Spaghetti Western director, Sergio Sollima to give
Salgari’s characters to their greatest cinematic fame.
In 1976, his 6 hour Sandokan miniseries starring
Indian actor Kabir Bedi as Sandokan and Carol Andre as Marianna
rocketed to # 1 in countries throughout Europe. Eighty million
viewers a week tuned in to watch. Merchandising was spectacular.
Books, comic books, soundtracks, action figures, posters…
Sandokan was everywhere, battling across the tiny screen
in Italian, Spanish, French and German. You can watch a
clip from this legendary production.
a few words to set the scene: Sandokan disguised as a Malay
prince, has met and fallen in love with Marianna. While
staying with her and her uncle, Lord James, they are invited
on a tiger hunt. Now here it is, the coolest clip from the
Bedi in Solima's classic Sandokan miniseries
stories had reached the height of popularity. They left audiences
begging for more, until, well George Lucas brought a certain film
to the screen... Star Wars changed the story-telling landscape.
They 80s quickly became about science fiction, fantasy, the future.
ET, Aliens, The Terminator ruled the screens. Though some tried
to adapt Salgari classics to those realities by revamping and updating
his titles with such novels as The Mystery of the Black Star and
The Pirates of the Galaxy, his books soon began to disappear from
bookstores. Though a few TV movie adaptations of his novels appeared
in Italy in the late 80s and early 90s, none captured the public
imagination. Kabir Bedi even tried a comeback as Sandokan in two
films, Sandokan Returns and The Son of Sandokan, mediocre efforts
best forgotten; The Son of Sandokan was so disappointing, the RAI
refused to air it.
and small societies would discuss his books from time to time,
but for the majority of the reading public, Salgari’s time
had come to an end. The Mystery of the Black Jungle and
a few Sandokan titles remained on the shelves, along with The
Black Corsair but most of his work fell out of print.
Then in Spain in the mid 90s something happened. A new Sandokan
cartoon caught the attention of viewers. Sandokan, drawn as a
tiger quickly grew in popularity and was soon exported to France
and Germany. Even England began to take an interest in the exploits
of the Tiger of Malaysia.
Not to be outdone, the RAI made its own Sandokan cartoon. Filled
with action and adventure, it quickly caught on with kids. A second
series was followed by a Black Corsair series. Though the animated
stories were popular, his novels, save for a handful of classics,
were still not on shelves.
JK Rowling made it cool to read, and as kids returned to
books, publishers scrambled to meet the need.
2001 Fabbri published the first new Salgari series in over
25 years. Salgari’s complete works with reproductions
of the original illustrations were sold through newspaper
stands throughout Italy. The first volume, The Mystery
of the Black Jungle sold 100,000 copies in its first
week. Salgari it seemed had made a comeback.
first National Salgari Association was also formed that
year. It began hosting national conferences discussing the
author’s work. New biographies began to appear as
did re-evaluations of his work.
note Che Guevara here in one of the posters. As a boy Che
was a huge fan; he read 62 of Mr. Salgari’s adventures.
His biographer Paco Taibo went so far as to say that Che’s
antimperialism was salgariano in origin. Whether that’s
true or not can be debated by others, what we do know is
that Che, the revolutionary, the idealist, used to read
Mr. Salgari’s books aloud to his daughter Hilda, passing
on his favorite stories. Salgari’s resurrection was
made complete by one last bit of unexpected help: Pirates
of the Caribbean. Johnny Depp made pirates fun and
exciting, and publishers scrambled to fill the shelves with
new editions of Mr. Salgari’s classic adventures.
Video games and DVDS of the Solima classics quickly hit
the shelves. A play about two friends that stumble upon
Salgari’s ghost in their attic went on tour throughout
Italy. New modern translations appeared in Spanish, Portuguese,
French, German, and Russian. The world it seemed was ready
to rediscover an old friend.
is plaque on the wall of Mr. Salgari's boyhood home in Verona.
this house was born
On the 21st of August, 1862
Novelist and poet of adventure
He inspired our youth to be generous
And to learn of all lands and all people
Verona will always perpetuate his memory
Emilio Salgari was honored on the centenary of his death with a
special stamp from the Italian post office. The 60-cent stamp was
issued in Turin on April 23, 100 years from the day in 1911 when
the novelist committed suicide in the Piedmont countryside.
seagulls fly across a portrait of Salgari to symbolise his love
of travel, even though he never visited the far-flung places where
his novels are set. An old sailing ship is also featured, a symbol
of the sea adventures and exotic lands that fill his novels.
am one of the many that read his tales and was inspired to travel
the world in search of adventure. I've trekked through Bornean
jungles, visited the lost city of the leper king, explored tombs
and pyramids and climbed mountains on three continents. And for
that, Mr. Salgari, I will be eternally grateful.