You can blame this one on Davide Mana, and his Salgari post over at Karavansara, for reminding me of how I too was subjected to Salgari as a child: in Italy there used to be this curious notion that no childhood could be considered complete without a hefty dose of Malay Pirates and Multi-coloured Corsairs. That went especially for boys, but girls weren’t always allowed to go immune…
I, for one, wasn’t. One summer day, when I was about ten, a distant cousin of my mother’s descended on me with a whole box of vintage Salgari – his own childhood reading choice, some fifteen or twenty hardbacks, with tiger-coloured* covers. He had loved them, he said, and I was going to love them too.
I was an obedient little girl and a rather omnivorous reader, so that summer I read a good few of the books – and not only didn’t I love them, but thoroughly disliked every single one. The stories, the characters, the language… it all sounded so awfully overblown to me. Moreover, even at that young age, I was already an anglophile, and what English characters appeared in Salgari – Rajah Brooke for one – were always villains of the worst kind.**
Well, the summer ended, and, having proved that my dislike of Salgariana rested on solid ground, I was allowed to put the tiger-covered hardbacks in their box and haul them to the attic, where they remain, I believe, to this day. I wouldn’t have spared another thought for Salgari again, if I hadn’t discovered, quite by chance and on a friend’s recommendation, that the man was far more interesting than his fiction – or, rather, that the fiction, dislike it as I might, acquired a whole different meaning when seen through the lens of the author’s unhappy life.
All his life, Salgari boasted a naval rank that he – to his huge chagrin – had never earned. He began adding it to his biographical note on publishing his early adventure stories, and the publishers never questioned it too closely – at first because they had no reason to disbelieve it, and then because it went well with the writing. Highly successful writing, it must be said – so very successful, in fact, that the myth of “Captain Salgari” was quickly created. The non-existent rank became at once uncomfortably public and impossible to drop, and at one point Salgari even fought a duel over his supposed captaincy, silencing a sceptical journalist at swordspoint.
If ever a man lived uncomfortably on a blurred line between fiction and reality, it was Emilio Salgari. His adventure tales, painstakingly researched when it came to geography, but riddled with historical howlers, had originated as an escape route, a world where the poor fellow could be the seaman, traveller and adventurer of his unfulfilled dreams. That pilfered title of “Captain Salgari” made the escape uneasy, and a poor eye for business ruined it all. A series of bad contracts landed Salgari in the hands of unscrupulous publishers, who made enormous profits from his breakneck productivity, and left him with only the scraps to support his four children and mentally ill wife. In the end, unable to bear the weight of it all, with his dreams shattered and his writing reduced to ill-paid drudgery, poor Salgari committed suicide – very much blaming the publishers for his misfortune.
It was seeing the colourful adventures and too-impassioned, too-tormented, too-noble characters against the background of this incredibly sad and bitter story, that made me choose Salgari as a main character for my Ink and Saltwater play. There is something in the contrast between the imagined life and the real, and in the lie that uneasily linked the two, that makes for great – if rather bleak – material. Who would have said that I would end up writing about Sandokan’s author – and, having done so, wanting for more? I still loathe Sandokan, and don’t think I’ll ever grow to like him or his fellows – but with Sandokan’s author, I don’t believe I am quite finished yet.
* Don’t ask.
** Oh, and there was also Sandokan, the godawful TV series – that all the family religiously watched, although, as it turned out many years later, nobody could stand it…