francis pettitt

The Tiger of Malaysia – Francis Pettitt

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Sandokan is a fictional pirate of the late 19th century, who first appeared in publication in 1883, created by Italian author Emilio Salgari. He is the protagonist of eleven adventure novels and is known throughout the South China Sea as "The Tiger of Malaysia".

The 2013 edition of Lucca Comics and Games – that extraordinary time in the city’s year celebrating fantasy cartoons with the streets filled with living characters from comics, including Japanese manga – takes place between 19 October (Exhibitions), 31 October (Festival), and 3 November, and will also commemorate the 150th anniversary of Emilio Salgari’s birth with a special exhibition in the Palazzo Ducale (as in 2011 the Festival remembered Salgari’s awful death in 1911).

I was reminded of Salgari by the talk given by Felice Pozzo, a leading Salgari scholar, at the conference on Possible and Impossible Worlds: the journey as a narrative scheme given at Bagni di Lucca last September.

If an Italian child has not read the adventures of Sandokan, the tiger of Malaysia, then that child must certainly be from a different planet. Emilio Salgari created the swashbuckling pirate who fights against greed, corruption and despotism, and in his lifetime he wrote over 200 adventure stories set in exotic locations inhabited by ferocious animals, hazardous environments, goodies and baddies. In fact, Salgari could also be described as a precursor of the Italian Spaghetti Western.

With his appeal to young readers Salgari could also be placed in the same category as British turn-of-the-century adventure writers like Ballantyne, Rider Haggard, Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, were it not for two major differences. First, he never actually visited the places he describes in his stories: everything was gleaned from travel reports and learned tracts. They may be impossible journeys or possible ones – if one uses one’s mind. Second, he was opposed to colonialism. No white man’s burden for him! Sandokan, for example, combats the Dutch and British Far Eastern fleet and Salgari’s Bermuda pirates fight for American independence. This may perhaps account for the fact that, until quite recently, there were no English translations of his works. Now, however, several of the author’s most popular titles have been translated by Nico Lorenzutti.

Despite his enormous sales Salgari lived a hand-to-mouth existence supporting his large family and invalid wife. He had a contract to write three or four books a year, with his publishers who truly exploited him. In the end poor, depressed Emilio committed suicide by hara-kiri (or self- disembowelment).

He left a note to his publishers which read:

To you that have grown rich from the sweat of my brow while keeping myself and my family in misery, I ask only that from those profits you find the funds to pay for my funeral. I wish you farewell you at the same time as I’m breaking my pen. Emilio Salgari.

What a destiny! I’m sure that had Salgari been alive today he’d be one of the richest writers in existence, with many spin-offs in the form of comics, films, games and TV mini-series. He has certainly been the most translated Italian author after Dante. And he could, at last, have satisfied his desire to visit the places he so lovingly wrote about as “Capitano Salgari”.

Article by Francis Pettitt – more article by Francis can be seen on his blog here

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