Don’t front. Chances are you don’t know about Emilio Salgari. Largely untranslated into English, inescapable in Europe and Latin America, Salgari is arguably the second most influential and popular Italian writer (a notch below Dante, a notch above Boccaccio). He was also terrible, a national embarrassment among literatti, denied a substantive biography or a place in encyclopedias until a nostalgic re-evaluation in the last decades of the 20th century. But he was terrible in a special, wonderful way, as a prolific pulp imagineer of transcendental hackery.
Salgari was our demented guide through exotic lands of peril. Fellini, Sartre, Borges, Garcia Marquez, and Umberto Eco all recalled him fondly. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was a huge fan, having wheezed his way trough a staggering 62 of Salgari’s books. (Makes sense to me: Salgari’s heroes were idealistic, inflexible, blood-thirsty, and completely bat-shit.) Count me in among the nostalgists. Gaining access to a stash of lurid Salgari editions in the Forbidden Reserve Vaults of the National Cuban Library (after much flirting with a sassy librarian) was one of my childhood feats, and it came with all the dust and discovery of a great treasure hunt.
What child could resist the adventures of Sandokan, the Tiger of Mompracem; or of the Black Corsair; or of Captain Tempest, one of the earliest cross-dressing heroes (it’s a chick in drag!)? I’m hyped just thinking about it!
At the time many wondered how Salgari knew so much about all the far-flung corners of the globe; had he really been EVERYWHERE? The question modern readers may ask is if Salgari ever got out of his house to talk to another person. (A typical Salgari line of dialogue runs along these stilted lines: “Say, Giaccomo, isn’t it great that you and I have been close friends for 20 years ever since I took you in after finding you among the burnt-out remains of a mysterious Indian temple?”)
Salgari, who called himself “Captain” Salgari and claimed to have lived in the Far East, Far West, Far North and Far South, was outed by a journalist who accused him of not being a Captain, of having failed his Naval exam, and of having never sailed farther than Sicily. Duel dutifully ensued, and Salgari nearly killed the muckracker- the closest he got to living the swashbuckling life of his creations.
The man who at one point outsold Dante churned out nearly 100 cut-and-paste, incompetent-and-yet-cool novels in futile attempts to keep out of poverty. Driven to madness by syphilis, he committed ceremonial seppuku in 1911, after writing a bitter letter to his editors asking them to at least cover his funeral expenses.
All of Emilio Salgari’s novels follow the same relentless pattern: in an EXOTIC SETTING, the HEROES are accompanied by MASCOTS and racially stereotyped SIDEKICKS as they travel through bad-guy territory, usually to fight greedy/darker-skinned VILLAINS, and recover their money/kingdom/honor/damsel. Along the way, they will encounter MEAN ANIMALS, and TOPICS OF INTEREST will be obtrusively discussed. There will also be a BIZARRE scene, a BIG ACTION SCENE and a TORTURE SCENE, then it’s all wrapped up with a TWIST.
As you can understand, if the 13 year old kid in you has not entirely perished, this is AWESOME!
“Adventures Among the Redskins” (Avventure Fra I Pellerossa)
EXOTIC SETTING: The Far West, the Pecos River, 1870s
HEROES: “Randolph Harrighen” and his sister “Mary”- who are MEXICAN, despite their names- have been dastardly scammed out of their inheritance by a tutor called “Braxley”- who is ALSO MEXICAN, despite his name- so they migrate to Texas looking for the American Dream, which at this early historical point was known as the American Nap.
SIDEKICKS: “Telie,” a plucky frontiersgirl who mostly stays behind with Mary while the men fight; “Ralf,” a simpleton who calls himself “The Salt Lake Alligator” for no reason Salgari cares to explain; and “Morton” the Peaceful Quaker, whose trait is that he never ever kills anyone, unless Salgari forgets this, at which point Morton kills people without much compunction.
MASCOTS: A cute little white dog who has learned to bark at red skinned people.
VILLAINS: Braxley the dastardly tutor; Pakiskan, an alcoholic Indian; Black Vulture, a sober Indian; the dreaded Apaches or Comanches (Salgari never really decides.)
TOPICS of INTEREST: The differences between Mormons and Quakers.
MEAN ANIMALS: A Bison gets shot in the head and eaten. A Black Bear gets shot in the head and eaten.
BIG ACTION SCENE: Our heroes flee from a prairie fire.
TORTURE SCENE: Many detailed scalpings; prisoners are thrown on burning logs.
CULTURAL/RACIAL INSENSITIVITY: “You’re a heartless, drunken liar, like all Red Skins”; Loyal black slave “Tom” quickly offers his life to save Massa Harrighen- without ever getting a line of actual dialogue.
BIZARRE MOMENT: Morton stops a fight by having a completely unforeshadowed epileptic fit, which causes the Apaches/Comanches/whichever to assume he’s a great shaman.
“TWIST”: Morton the Peaceful Quaker turns out to be a famous Serial Killer. But of Injuns. So a LIKABLE serial killer, like “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
RATING: Probably EEWWW!!! from a purely literary stand-point, and yet somehow very COOL! to the adventurer in me. Let’s say it’s GOOD ENOUGH.