(Re-read from childhood.)
Literature does not care for lieutenants and rarely for generals, but captains were saluted for most of the 19th century. Emilio Salgari’s “Captain Tempest” is the first in a two-volume cycle, (along with “The Lion of Damascus”). Plot-wise, it sticks to Salgari’s heroic formula, with one notable twist that finds the author at his most “progressive”: the titular captain is actually a cross-dressing Neapolitan woman, Leonora of Eboli, out to rescue a mansel-in-distress, the Vicomte de Hussiere, from the claws of the Islamic Estate, or its 16th century equivalent.
EXOTIC SETTING: 1571, Venetian Cyprus, under siege from the Turkish forces of Mustafa Pasha.
TOPICS OF INTEREST: That old “Christians vs. Muslims” trope. One thing that Salgari’s novels have, and this I also valued in Jules Verne, is that for all the crude national stereotypes, the characters are more into globalization than into parochialism. Here, we have Neapolitan, Venetian, Cyprian, Turk, French, Greek, Polish, Arab, and Hindu characters fighting side by side and throwing slurs at each other with cosmopolitan abandonment.
HEROES: Captain Tempest, a heroic woman who has joined the Venetian resistance in drag; the imprisoned Vicomte de Hussiere; and Muley-el-Kadel, the handsome Muslim warrior who makes the Vicomte de Hussiere look extra loserish by comparison.
SIDEKICK: El-Kadur, the converted Turk who repeatedly offers to kill himself for the sake of pretty Captain Tempest; a large number of Venetians, Greeks, and Arabs who vow to do the same.
VILLAINS: Haradja, the curvy, capricious, blood-thirsty daughter of a Baja who only cares about the Coran when absolutely convenient to her plans, and who falls for both Muley and Leonor, (neither of those romances work out for Haradja, which is kinda surprising, because Salgari writes her as a genuinely hot femme fatale); Slaczinski, a coat-turning Polack.
ACTION SCENE: The siege of Famagusta is a marvel of a massacre; several thrilling scimitar fights; burning, exploding galleys.
MEAN ANIMALS: LEECHES.
TORTURE SCENE: The torture scene in this is one of Salgari’s creepiest: Christian prisoners are forced to earn their keep by turning into leech-fishers, an occupation that involves sinking into a swamp until their leech-covered bodies are allowed to emerge and valuable leeches are plucked from their wounded flesh. This exciting activity continues until the exsanguinated prisoners stop becoming attractive to the leeches.
BIZARRE MOMENT: DID I MENTION THE LEECHES?
“Lay down your swords, you dogs! Don’t you see this man is a Christian, like us? We are not murderers! We only kill people from different races or religions!”
CULTURAL/RACIAL INSENSITIVITY: “I knew that the Turks were God-forsaken savages; but little did I know that Polacks were even closer to the animal state.”
RATING: Kinda COOL!