Book of the Week: Sandokan, the tigers of Mompracem
Words by Carla Passino
One of Italy’s most popular authors, Emilio Salgari remains relatively little known in English speaking countries. Which is a shame because his books are swashbuckling adventures of the best kind.
“On the night of December 20th, 1849, a violent hurricane raged over Mompracem, a small island a few hundred miles off the west coast of Borneo, home to the most feared pirates in the South China Sea. Driven by a powerful wind, the clouds raced across the sky like unbridled horses, swirling violently, at times unleashing torrents of rain upon the island’s dark forests. Whipped by the wind, the sea raged with fury, its troubled waves roaring relentlessly among the crash of thunder.”
I have got you there, haven’t I? You must be wondering why I am going on about a tropical storm and what it may have to do with Italy. Thing is, the man who originally wrote those descriptions of wild South East Asian landscapes was as Italian as it gets. His name was Emilio Salgari, and he was by far the greatest adventure writer Italy has ever produced.
Generations of Italian, myself included, have grown up reading the swashbuckling tales of Sandokan, a Malaysian prince deprived of his family and kingdom by the evil Rajah Brooke of Sarawak, and of the Black Corsair, an Italian nobleman turned Caribbean pirate, who swore vengeance against the cruel Flemish soldier that slew his family - only to fall desperately in love with the man’s daughter.
Salgari’s novels were fast paced, action packed, and filled with tragedy, heroism, romance and intriguing snapshots of exotic lands and animals (which, incidentally, he had never visited but nonetheless brought to life from the dull descriptions he read in encyclopaedias). It was a heady enough mix to make his work popular with late 19th century Italians, who first read the serialized novels in La Nuova Arena newspaper.
But it is testament to the emotional power of Salgari’s writing that his books gripped even the disingenuous descendants of those first readers - I remember sneaking into my grandmother’s book-filled study on Saturday afternoons and magically being transported aboard a brigantine sailing on choppy seas near La Tortue or in the Indian jungle, listening with bated breath for the approaching steps of murderous thugs.
Even today, nearly a hundred years after Salgari’s death, his stories are hugely popular in Italy, Spain and the Spanish speaking countries (he is one of Italy’s most widely translated authors). Mysteriously, they are a lot less known in English-speaking countries, even though a few of them have been translated into English - perhaps this may have something to do with the fact that Salgari’s villains often hailed from the British empire?
Either way, it is a real shame, because Salgari’s books make perfect reading for young readers aged ten to fifteen - particularly adventure-hungry boys - because they have all the fighting, romance and adventure of, say, a Wilbur Smith, without any of the alcohol, sex and swearing.
So here is my suggestion - if you are looking for a good book to give children this Christmas, try Salgari. Not only will you gift them heroes, adventures and places to dream about - you will also share with them an important slice of popular Italian culture.