So, I know that I have already rambled a good deal about the insanely-popular, but virtually unheard-of to English-speakers, series character known as Sandokan. (For your edification, I previously discussed him here and here.)
Having now read the first book, Sandokan: The Tigers of Mompracem, I must say that I can see what all the fuss is about, but I would have seen it all even better had I been able to read the book when I was about thirteen. The story of an entirely vicious, hate-filled, revenge-obsessed pirate who suddenly (very, very suddenly) falls in love, causing everything to change for him, is full of the kind of melodrama, and spurts of blood, that I would have loved at that age. Or, rather, that I would have loved even moreso than I do now–please don’t think that I am at all panning the book.
True enough, the romance in the story is without a doubt the type that simply appears full-blown out of nowhere and envelops both man and woman, and the character of Sandokan goes back and forth between emotional extremes at the drop of a hat. This all leads us to some grand pirate melodrama, but frankly, the setting, and the things that make the book different from its peers are actually bolstered somewhat by the cliches that exist therein.
For Sandokan, unlike your normal piratical hero of a European-written novel, is a deposed king from the south of Borneo. Deposed by the 19th century colonial expansion of the English, against whom he has sworn a bitter debt. The murder of his family and loss of his kingdom has left him with a burning hatred of the English, and a generally not-too-happy view of white people in general, with the exception of Yanez, his Portuguese best friend and, essentially, sidekick. Yanez is clearly the surrogate for the European readers of the books, and by one account was Salgari’s surrogate for himself.
Setting what could have been, perhaps, not quite the most original pirate story ever in such a different place is what gives the Sandokan series its real power: it’s strange to imagine so many young European children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries thrilling to the exploits of a hero who has declared war on the European world. Even when Sandokan falls in love with a white woman (and a blonde, blue-eyed one, no less, I wonder if that made anybody uncomfortable back in the day) he becomes willing to throw aside his vendetta out of love for her, but does not actually allay his hatred for the bulk of her kind.
What is, perhaps, strongest though about Sandokan being an anti-colonial hero is that, at least in this first book, no great big deal is made out of it: Salgari presents it as a foregone conclusion that Sandokan is a heroic but brutal man, who is that way because of what the encroachments of other powers did to him, even though the book was written at a time when adventure fiction was often jumping onto the colonial bandwagon, so to speak. Granted, it could have something to do with the fact that Italy wasn’t a real colonial power at the time, but I think the works of Salgari still stand against those of us who like to forgive the colonialism and racism in literature of the time a little too easily, dismissing it by saying “oh, well that’s just how they all thought back then.” Clearly, this is not the case.
But anyway, enough of what the book may mean in a historical context, what is it like to read? Well, a lot of fun, if one isn’t expecting the most deep and profound story ever written. Setting and all, The Tigers of Mompracem is pure escapism, and, as I said, quite adolescent escapism at that. But, as anyone who pays attention to this site and to my opinions knows, I do not consider this to be a bad thing at all. It’s a rip-roaring sort of adventure with a hero who’s essentially invincible: filled to the brim with death, hatred, sacrifices for love, howls for vengeance, blood, deception, camaraderie, and even a knock-down drag-out fight between a panther and orangutan. Whatever The Tigers of Mompracem may lack in depth it makes up for in excitement, this is a book that does not stop moving.
It is also more than possible that what it does lack in depth has a good deal to do with its being the first book featuring the character. Nico Lorenzutti, the translator of the book and, I believe, the rather big cheese when it comes to ROH Press, the small publisher releasing these great new editions, told me that this first Sandokan book was originally written in 1883, and then modified to be released in 1900, so in Tigers of Mompracem I would expect that we’re seeing Salgari at an earlier point in his career… although I won’t really be able to judge until I’ve read some of the later novels. The first one certainly doesn’t end as though it’s leading towards any kind of a series, but that just makes me more curious to see how the others continue from it. I am definitely looking forward to the rest of the series though, especially since the titles of future books point to what seems to be a pretty damn big, multi-book epic.
All told, if any of what I’ve discussed here appeals to you, I would tell you to go pick up this new, and quite affordable, edition of The Tigers of Mompracem while the time is ripe. I’m always for supporting small publishers, and when said small publisher is devoted to bringing non-English adventure classics (including a long out of print Jules Verne novel) to an American audience… well, suffice it to say, I think that they should be supported. Oh, and adolescent fantasy or not, Sandokan: The Tigers of Mompracem is damn enjoyable.