Friday, September 21, 2007

By Emilio Salgari

I first came across Sandokan and the Tigers of Mompracem in “Prowl Unceasing” by Chris Roberson in the masterful anthology of swashbuckling SpecFic he published, Adventure Vol 1. Well, is it any wonder that a guy who has published Jess Nevins’ encyclopedias of pulp heroes & penny dreadfuls would know about Italy’s most famous dime novels? Is it any wonder that when I heard about a series of novels about dashing Malay pirates doing battle with James Brooke, one of Victorian Britain’s actual swashbucklers, I had to get a hold of them?

Nope and nope. But, be warned there is only one translation of Salgari’s multi-volume oeuvre. Back in the 1880s Salgari became a tremendous hit with Italian readers. His works have been extensively translated into Spanish and have been the basis for movies, TV series, action figures, and other product tie-ins. How is it that such a popular writer is apparently unknown in the English-speaking world except for some eccentric fans in Texas?

To be certain, Sandokan is a dime novel. Sandokan is a Terribly Romantic Pirate of a kind that would have appealed to readers in Rafael Sabatini’s day, but seems a bit over-the-top in our more cynical era. Sandokan is an exiled Malay prince who commands a band of pirates from his island headquarters of Mompracem. He is the enemy of all colonialists, Dutch, Spanish, and especially British. He and his pal Yanez, a Portuguese adventurer, defy the world. But, alas for Sandokan, he has seen Marianna the Pearl of Labuan, and is obsessed with her beauty. This would be no big problem, except her British uncle (she’s Eurasian), Lord Guillonk (I’m not making that up) is the blood-enemy of pirates. Even worse, she has been betrothed to Baron Rosenthal. All Sandokan has to do is kidnap her from the middle of an armed villa and hold off the entire Royal Navy. Love will do the rest.

It’s fun stuff, with an interesting setting and unusual characters. But Salgari is rather limited when it comes to creating characters that are even remotely credible. I like my characters a bit broad, but these guys are stretched. Sandokan throws his men’s lives away just to get a look at Marianna. Indeed, he falls in love with Marianna more or less on a whim. Although Yanez and Sandokan talk about how his obsession with Marianna means the end for the Tigers, nothing much comes of it, except lots of predictable slaughter. And just how many British peers have Jewish names? I was half expecting Earl Shlomo Mankowitz to show up and help Baron Rosenthal.

Salgari does not let the action slow for more than a nanosecond before there’s a battle with British ships, soldiers, sharks, or orangutans. Sometimes it gets to be a bit much, even for me, and I do love a high body count.

This may sound like excessive negativity from a crabby old man who’s read too many pirate novels. I really wanted to like Sandokan, and I found the book grew on me in a corny, clunky sort of way. So you might enjoy Sandokan if you are a historian of genre writing, or you might enjoy it if you are willing to commit to the utterly improbable and terribly romantic.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

I have never heard of this writer or his books before. I'd like to have a look just because it's a non-American pulp. I liked Captain Blood so I might enjoy it. On the other hand, it reminds me of the Captain Shark novels written in England. They had the same non-stop action but I found myself longing for a bit of charcter development

Dave Hardy said...

There are quite a few online resources for Sandokan. Some are even in English. There was a TV series, a movie, and even action figures.
Slagari wrote quite a bit of Sandokan, but as far as I know, this is the only book that has been translated into English.

ROH Press said...


Glad you liked the adventure. Always nice to find another Salgari fan. You're right, the action is fast paced and perhaps a little over ther top, but the books are fun, light reads.

Just wondering if you could update your Amazon link. There's now a new edition of the Sandokan The Tigers of Momapracem,(a more modern translation)

And there are now two more Sandokan novels in print: Sandokan the Pirates of Malaysia and Sandokan the Two Tigers.

Pirates has Sandokan face James Brooke, and is considered one of the best novels in the series. Same kind of fast paced action, but the romance is scaled back a bit. Sample chapters can be found on our website: