L'Isola di Fuoco by Emilio Salgari, illustrated by Luca Caimmi, Orecchio Acerbo Editore, April 2011
Last April 25th was the 100th anniversary of Emilio Salgari’s death. Salgari claims fatherhood for many heroes that, during the decades, have populated the dreams of adults and children. Often downgraded to minor writer, because he was considered popular when not children’s book writer, with all the negative meaning those terms had, his work is for sure at the level of many other acclaimed adventure book writers. His books were, and still are, amid the more translated in the world, his most famous characters: from Sandokan to the Black Corsair, from Yanez to the charming Pearl of Labuan, just to mention some amid the ones from his most famous novels.
His production was wide and varied, in fact he wrote over 85 novels and an impressive number of tales, about 160, published both under his name or under different pen names heralding exotic adventures, such as Captain Guido Altieri, or Romero S.. For more in-depth on his production, if reading Italian, please visit this page.
As Mario Tropea explains, in this beautiful article I warmly recommend you to read (sorry but again
only for Italian readers): "... si può dire che le ragioni dell’interesse all’opera di Salgari derivano da
quella sua capacità di interpretare, a livello diretto e aideologico, da scrittore di razza e
istintivo,elementare”, appunto, e tanto più convincentemente per questo, tendenze e miti della realtà
dell’Ottocento, come l’esotismo, il sogno di conquista e di movimento, la diffusione mondiale,
l'appropriazione planetaria, la espansione del progresso (la rapina anche, e la prevaricazione) ad
opera dell’uomo occidentale nei confronti dell’intero globo. ..."*
And nonetheless, as Tropea reminds in the above mentioned article, Salgari is often inspired by news items, as it was the case with the island off the coast of Sicily, in the waters between Sciacca and Pantelleria, to whom L'Isola di Fuoco is inspired: it seems that, since the night of times, said island used to appear to then sink in a din of lapillus and ashes, and that it definitely disappeared in 1832.
L'Isola di Fuoco isn’t amid Salgari’s best known tales, and nonetheless publisher Orecchio Acerbo selected it to celebrate the most productive, and more berated, writer of the 19th century. This is no obvious choice, on the contrary, and to be honest it’s exactly what I expected from them, if ever, it’s an emblematic choice, assuming a highly symbolic meaning thanks to the interpretation illustrator and publisher together decided to give this story.
The tale written by Salgari is set in the waters of the Pacific Ocean and it tells, as I was saying above, of a boat that, almost at destination, bumps into a strange phenomenon: an island that sinks in a fire thunder. When the story starts the journey is almost over, it’s a dazzling story, extremely short, narrated in first person by a seaman who embarked to join New Zeland.
He’ll be the first person to spot the fire at a distance and to alert Mr Watt, the ship’s captain. Up to that moment, writing and image narration proceed at the same rate. Though, starting with the 5th table, we start to understand that something is wrong. In the map Captain Watt is examining, we realize we're not looking at the Pacific Ocean, at its place we see the Gulf of Mexico: a sombre spot, marked with a red cross, stains the map. From this moment on, the mystery is slowly revealed.
We’re not looking at an island anymore but a burning oil platform.
Waters are dangerously warming up, the boat suffers a mechanical damage and is forced to unfurl its sails hoping that the wind would finally blow. Salgari has the gift of transporting us into the stories he tells and thus, the connection between the facts he tells and the more recent ones from the Gulf of Mexico, that inspired the images, result into an even more excruciating impact.
This juxtaposition between the story written by Salgari and the recent Gulf of Mexico facts, more than being a very clever and innovative idea, results deeply respectful of the philosophy that is the grounds of Salgari’s narrative in matters of getting inspiration from current affairs, and in matters of representing technological expansionism carried out regardlessly, a trend that, as it seems, hasn’t stopped with the end of the 19th century.
It also has credit for actualizing the story, to bring it nearer in all its unlikeliness to a reality we know far too well, leaving intact Salgari’s taste for danger and adventure.
I believe it was a consciously risky choice, dictated by a strong civic and environmental feeling , it’s by the way an effective way to let young people approach the consequences of what Tropea calls: "...la espansione del progresso (la rapina anche, e la prevaricazione) ad opera dell’uomo occidentale..."*
Caimmi’s wonderful watercolours fill the pages with vigour and awareness. The wave that slowly takes shape and then almost entirely floods the page, premonition of imminent disasters, seems to obscure every surface: sky, sea, ship, men reduced to mere shadows melting in the light of the fire. But the morning comes, the island has disappeared in the depths of the ocean, and the fire is all over...
Everything seems to gain back its original shape, its consistency, the night in its sinisterly sparked mantle leaves place to reality with all its tragic truth.
Bitter words resound:
“...Una fortuna da raccogliere, e gli isolani non si lasceranno certo scappare una così bella occasione!” ***
even bitter when the fortune they can get is a staining and suffocating oil spot. In the text Salgari refers to the fish that died because of the heat of the waters as a consequence of the island burning, while in the images Caimmi has painted make us think of a sad, though concrete, paradox: the black gold, source of wars, of political and economical strategies, gets out of control and invades nature, dragging away precious balances, while common men are left with a desperate and meticulous fishing in the effort to reduce damages as much as possible.
The picture book ends with this wonderful image, no words are needed to describe such a scene:
An extremely well done book, as in the tradition of this publishing house, the careful use of graphics enhances the connection between words and images. A priceless lesson for those who want to teach to their sons (or students) the due respect for environment.
Luca Caimmi, is al illustrator from Marche, he has received several recognitions amid which the Prize titled to Andrea Pazienza, he was selected as well at the Bologna Book Fair in 1998 and 1999. He has published several titles amid which, La Nave by Antonio Koch, in 2009 with Topipittori and, in 2010, he took part to the collective exhibit titled Banchi di Nebbia, Orecchio Acerbo has published the catalogue. Here is his blog: http://lucacaimmi.blogspot.com/
* Mario Tropea, Emilio Salgari, un "classico" della letteratura italiana, Agorà VII (a. II, Ottobre-Dicembre 2001)
"... we can as well affirm that the reasons of the interest in Salgari’s works derives from that ability of his to interpret, at a direct and aideological level - as the pedigreed and instinctive author he was, “elementary”, exactly, and far more convincing for this - the tendencies and myths of reality in the 1800, as exoticism, or the dream of conquest and motion, worldwide diffusion, planetary appropriation, the expansion of progress (its robbery as well, and prevarication) that western men imposed on the rest of the world. ..."
** "...the expansion of progress (the robbery as well, and the abuse of power) operated by western men...", Ibidem.
*** “... A fortune to harvest, the people from the islands won't certainly miss such a good occasion!"
Copyright© text and images, Ed. Orecchio Acerbo 2011. Images have been reproduced with the publisher’s permission, any unauthorized reproduction being strictly forbidden.