February 3, 2012

The Son of the Red Corsair (1908 novel)

Written by Emilio Salgari.

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This is a story about the pirates of the Caribbean. Seriously, anyone familiar with the ride or the Disney films will recognize elements at play as pirates wander the Central American seas, looting towns and fight the constant battle for absolute freedom against ruling parties controled by a European wealthy elite. It's got sword fights and broadside cannon battles and much drinking of wine and even the pirate ruled island of Tortuga. It also brings with it a complicated ethical grey zone as the people we're rooting for are absolute scoundrels who will sack and pillage an entire town just to get their hands on a single person, leaving who knows how many innocent soldiers and citizens dead in their wake, blaming and punishing anyone who has the gall to fight to protect their homes and their families.

The hero of the tale is Count Enrico di Ventimiglia, a dashing young man dressed all in red in honor of his father, the Red Corsair, who, along with his brothers the Black Corsair and the Green Corsair, was sent to the gallows after a past revenge quest that led them to piracy. Enrico is considered far too classy to seek vengeance on his own, and is instead trying to hunt down the whereabouts his half-sister, the product of his father's second marriage to a native woman, who was taken in by the Marquis of Montelimar following her father's hanging. So Enrico wants to find his sister, but first he'll have to find the Marquis, who he can only find through the Marquis' secretary, who's location needs to be found from the Marquis' sister-in-law, the Marquise (note the added "e") of Montelimar. In order to get through most of these stages of his mission, the Count has to assemble a large force of pirates and rip through perfectly innocent people just so he can ask a question and move on to the next step. They tear apart a navy vessel, killing half the men on board. They invade and conquer not one, but two towns. They blow the shit out of an inland fortress. It's all exciting and dashing, but it's a little hard to root for the hero, the man who claims his noble name was tarnished when his gentleman father was branded a simple outlaw, when he's using nothing but brutal tactics to achieve his goal. The book makes an effort to say his men didn't loot and plunder and that he made it up to them through paid salaries, but he has no issue standing by while other pirates he allies himself with slaughter and plunder their way through towns. Most disgusting is a section where a group of women are taken hostage, but they don't mind because they get to be loose and have fun with the pirates. I guess this is an alternate reality where rape doesn't exist.

The Count himself is a rather bland figure. He's quite dashing in the early parts of the novel, skipping about, posing, and assaulting his foes with witty exclamation marks, but as the story moves along, he loses his lightness and humor and mostly falls into the background. There's an entire stretch of the book where he simply doesn't appear, only resurfacing again for the final epic showdown against the Marquis. Instead the novel is sidetracked by a funny bunch of supporting characters, which isn't a complaint, as the three old school "Arrr!" pirates we follow around are really quite entertaining and are definitely the heart of the novel. We start with Mendoza, The Count's gristled old slab of a right hand man who loves to lay back and drink when he isn't busting heads. In the early sections, they take in Don Barrejo, a castle guard so charmed by the pirates when they kidnap him and steal his armor that he insists on tagging along. Barrejo pretty much steals the show for most of the novel, going into a game of constant one-up-manship with Mendoza as his wily imagination and constant boasting is often inexplicably backed up but his boldness and genuine skill with a blade. It's he that often saves the day or comes up with the winning plan or holds the most liquor, leaving the Count drifting into the shadows once Barrejo leaps into the spotlight. About halfway through the book, Mendoza and Barrejo get into a bar fight with a giant Flemmish man who's name we never know, yet he ends up also being charmed by their adventurous pursuits and taking up their cause under the nickname Don Hercules. This book isn't really about the Count or the missing sister or revenge against the aristocracy of Central America. No, it's about these three dudebros seeing who can drink the most wine, who can slay the most foes, and who can win the greatest glory.

The book has a colorful flow to it, drifting from moment to moment, quest to comedy to battle, with a steady pace, and does a wonderful job of painting this society of barons and buccaneers. Everyone one we meet has some color or quirk to them that makes them memorable, and while ethnicities are pointed out, there's never the unfortunate stereotyping one expects from such an old book. Though his part is small, there's a great character in the form of Martin, a member of the Count's crew and Mendoza's foil before Barrejo joins up. Martin is a black man, but he's educated, principled, and respected, and its his knowledge and steady poise that's played as a contrast to the brutish Mendoza as opposed to the color of his skin.

But returning to my earlier point, this book turns a very blind eye to the reality of piracy and the absolutely horror of someone having their entire town invaded and looted. We hear about losses and fires, but we never see the cold blooded murder that we know is actually occurring, and are never shown the taking of everything a person owns as anything more than the necessary resupplying of the force. There's even a moment where, lovable thought he may be, Barrejo encounters a lighthouse keeper and says the man will be payed and praised if he cooperates, thrown off the roof of his tower if he doesn't. These aren't good people.

And the book takes a further surprising turn by not severely vilifying the aristocracy as a justification. No, these rules aren't treated as bloated, wasteful bureaucrats who ignore their subject. They care. They maintain order. They keep everything smooth and all their people happy and fed. Even the Marquis shows a sincere fondness for the woman he took in as his own child, with the old Red Corsair's exploits being fully justifiable for a hanging. Hell, the Corsair's son is guilty of far worse by the time the book ends, so I don't see why it's even in question. No, these are decent people, but the book never seems to recognize their constant victimization at the hands of the "heroes", leaving it feeling weird and a little uncomfortable, as many of the sequences are legitimately absorbing and entertaining, until you stop to think about the consequences of what just happened.

So I'm left in the end with an uneven book. If you want a fun, thrilling swashbuckler full of colorful characters, wild escapades, secret passageway, duels complete with secret master techniques ("The One-Hundred Pistol Thrust!"), and lots of explosions and drinking, then you're in the right place as it certainly is an entertaining page turner. But if you want something a little deeper, then you might be troubled by some of the angles the book approaches things from. It's not so much what it shows that bothers me, but what it overlooks, what it decides to pretend would never happen because, yeesh, that would sure kill the mood if such consequences were actually seen.

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