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.
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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
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.
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
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 the Black
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Sandokan 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 interest.
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.
Steve Reeves - Sandokan
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 Spaghetti Western.
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.
It 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
Just 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 series.
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
Not to be outdone,
the RAI made its own Sandokan cartoon. Filled with action and
adventure, it quickly caught on with kids. A second Sandokan
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.
In 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.
You’ll 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
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.
In 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
In 2011 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.
Two 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.
I 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.