Friday, August 19, 2016

The Black Corsair by Emilio Salgari

If you've spent any amount of time around me, you know that I have a soft spot for old vintage swashbucklers. I read a lot of them while I was studying law and thus not mentally equal to anything but the most insubstantial and fun stories, but reading these old-style melodramas of honour, mistaken identity, love and revenge gave me a deep appreciation of the fun and the gripping which continues to this day both as a reader and as an author.

Back in the day when I was a brain-dead law student combing the internet for free vintage swashbuckler ebooks, one author caught my attention: Emilio Salgari, author of the classic The Tiger of Mompracem. Sadly, although Salgari seemed to be wildly popular in the Italian-speaking world, it didn't seem like there were any English translations of his book available. A a result, more recently, when I was contacted by a representative at ROH Press and offered a free review copy of an English translation of Salgari's 1898 pirate yarn The Black Corsair, I was thrilled to take him up on the offer.

Emilio di Roccabruna of Roccanera, Lord of Valpenta and of Ventimiglia (what a mouthful!), is out for revenge. The governor of Maracaibo, Van Guld, a Flemish defector to the Spanish, has shot his elder brother and hanged his two younger brothers. Now only the Lord of Ventimiglia, also known and feared across the Caribbean as the Black Corsair, is left--and Van Guld has sworn to finish his work. After sneaking into Maracaibo to rescue his youngest brother's body from the gallows, the Black Corsair pulls together a coalition of the Tortuga pirates to storm Maracaibo--but Van Guld is as cunning as he is cruel, and more than one surprise waits for the Black Corsair along the way!

As you might guess, this is thrill-a-minute book, intended not to have a dull chapter in it. Reading it, I understood Salgari's appeal. The adventure goes from one peril to the next, complete with a dash of romance, humour, and plenty of gore. Wikipedia informs me that Sergio Leone cited Salgari as an influence on his spaghetti Westerns, and having now had the opportunity of reading one of his books, I can appreciate the influence.

All the same, The Black Corsair wasn't without some rather significant flaws. For me, the most disappointing thing was the lack of conflict in the characterisation. For a book about pirates seeking bloody revenge on the high seas, this story had the most agreeable cast of characters I've ever met! From the hero's three sidekicks, to the vast number of people whom the Corsair dueled, captured, or had dinner with over the course of the narrative, none of them seemed ever to have even mild disagreements, either with each other or with the Corsair. Sure, the constant petty conflict in most current-day books gets on my nerves just as it gets on yours. However, I found myself longing that perhaps one of the Corsair's devoted followers would turn out to be holding some kind of grudge, or that one of the noblemen he duelled at some point would not immediately swear gentlemanly friendship with him immediately afterward. The reason for this is that conflict drives story, and the conflict we as readers find most compelling is not battles and duels so much as it's interpersonal or internal conflict. There was plenty of external conflict in this story, but it was almost fatally short on interpersonal conflict.

As a result, I found it difficult to care about the characters, even though the story itself was never short on thrilling coincidences. My patience was then further tested by the ending, which came with no resolution, just a maddening cliffhanger. I was completely unprepared for this, and considerably annoyed when it happened. Where was the swashbuckler I was promised? This was only half of it! For the rest of the story, I'd have to consult the sequel, Queen of the Caribbean. Enough to make you take to piracy yourself.

That said, there was also plenty to appreciate in this story. Salgari evidently writes with the intention of being educational as well as entertaining, and I found the level of detail he included in his work pretty impressive. One chapter takes a moment to give you a frankly completely fascinating overview of the history of piracy in the Caribbean, the South American jungles are lovingly and even pedantically described, and the nautical details evidently draw on Salgari's own experience as a student of seamanship in his youth.

As far as themes go, the fact that the story doesn't conclude in this volume makes it difficult to pass any firm judgement. While the pirates are depicted sympathetically and act with probably more of a sense of honour than they would have in real life, Salgari doesn't shy away from rather gritty depictions of battle. And while the revenge motive drives the plot, it leads to an obviously idiotic decision on the part of the hero at the end, which I have no doubt at all will be reversed somehow in the sequel.

In the final analysis, I think I probably would have enjoyed this novel a whole lot more if I'd come to it much younger, with much less exacting taste. It was eminently respectable escapist fun, and while I don't know if I'd seek out any of Salgari's other novels for myself, it's definitely worth keeping in mind as good reading-fodder for the young.

EDIT: Some fascinating comments from the translator, who's clearly far more knowledgeable about Salgari than I am:
Your point on conflict is an interesting one, Salgari prized loyalty highly, the Corsair's crew, Sandokan's men, Captain Tempesta's men (his female knight) would never dream of betraying their leader. No sacrifice was too great for a heroic and noble leader. Garibaldi was still a vivid memory to many in Italy, and an example of what a leader should be.

As you noted Salgari was also an educator, and wrote in the same manner of Jules Verne and other writers from that era, though he tended to focus more on nature than technology. All that detail was from books and journals and traveler's tales, he never left Italy.

You're not the first to complain about the ending. Salgari was originally going to leave the story there, from what I'm told. [...] It was an unexpected ending for the time, unlike his usual 'happily ever after' type endings that were more common in his novels. He didn't write the sequel until 3 years later.
Find The Black Corsair in English at Amazon or The Book Depository.


Joseph J said...

I've often wondered, if conflict is the catalyst for plot development, what kind of stories would Adam and Eve have told? What kind of stories would be told in a peaceful and harmonious world? Would they have just been gentle tales about overcoming challenges? To put it another way, do we have Satan to thank for all the exciting stories we have enjoyed? No devil, no swashbucklers. Not that I intend on expressing any gratitude to him any time soon.

Another thought that disturbs me sometimes - What kind of stories will we tell in Heaven? Will we just reminisce about the things that happened back on Old Earth? Will there be no need for stories in Heaven, because Life will be so much better than fiction? I'd be cool with that.

Jamie W said...

"And when, in scenes of glory, / I sing the new, new song, / 'Twill be the old, old story / That I have loved so long"...?

Suzannah said...

Joseph, that's a very interesting question. ND Wilson points out (in this highly-recommended lecture, "Trouble Makers") that Adam and Eve were not yet fallen when a dragon turned up in the Garden, which thus suggests that conflict is not inconsistent with a blessed state. Also temptation presumably had force back then. What that means for the new heavens and new earth is something I'm not entirely sure of, though I would imagine Jamie is correct--there'll be a lot of sitting-around-the-campfire-telling-war-stories.

Joseph J said...

Thanks for the lecture, very interesting. At first I was like, 'Who is this flake?', but by the end I was very appreciate. Very much in the line of Chesterton and Lewis with his commonsensical approach to Christianity.

Suzannah said...

ND Wilson's one of those rare things--a favourite living author of mine. I highly recommend Boys of Blur.


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