Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Corto Maltese. The Ballad of The Salt Sea by Hugo Pratt 

The Ballad of the Salt Sea marks the most recent publication in English of the first volume in the adventures of Corto Maltese. This production has received much criticism over the internet with many readers stating that the cutting, pasting and truncating of the original panels have lessened somewhat the focus and rhythm of the original story.

The novel begins in the South Seas in November 1913. A catamaran belonging to the pirate captain Rasputin encounters two teenagers whose boat was wrecked in a recent storm. Rasputin questions the two teenagers and learns that they are cousins Cain and Pandora Groovsnore. Their family are wealthy shipping magnets with contacts scattered throughout the globe. Rasputin hatches a plan to hold the children for ransom.
It is at this stage that Corto Maltese makes his appearance and it is the most unromantic and unconventional of entrances. Like the Grosvenors he is adrift at sea, however here the similarity ends as his pirate crew has mutinied and have cast him into the ocean strapped to some debris.

Rasputin plucks Corto Maltese out of the ocean and confides his plans for the Groovsnore children with him. There is however one slight problem both pirate captains work for the mysterious Monk, a pirate king whose headquarters is the island of Escondida.

Here intrigue and mystery, romance and heroism all ofwhich are to be the hallmarks of future Corto Maltese story take hold. The Monk is working with the then German Imperial Navy to supply them with coal to fuel their fleet in the South Seas. Ships are stopped and their cargos plundered. War is expected to break out at any moment and the Kaisers forces want to be on the ready.

One of the strengths of The Ballad of the Salt Sea is character development. Corto goes from being a peripheral figure to emerge as the enigmatic romantic loner the reader of later works would become familiar with. Rasputin is revealed to be a heartless killer unable to understand why he travels friendless through the world while the Groovsnores change from precocious teenagers to alert and appreciative young adults.

Pratt also focus’s in on characters who up to this would not normally have featured strongly in literature. One of the main characters is Tarao a young Maori, who in many ways is the hero of the story. Another is Cranio a native of the South Sea Islands who act as the Monk’s right hand man.

Fans of Hugo Pratt were disappointed in this edition of The Ballad of the Salt Sea and complaints about panel layout only served to lead to further gripes about the quality of the pictures and the fact that said pictures were rendered in colour rather than their original black and white. As an aside this edition of The Ballad of the Salt Sea is based on an earlier Italian edition of the novel and changes to panel layout etc received the official endorsement of Hugo Pratt.

Readers should remember that The Ballad of the Salt Sea is the first in the Corto Maltese series of novels. The distinctive style Pratt used to retell the adventurers stories had yet to be developed and would later reach its zenith with Fables of Venice and The Golden House of Samarkand. People should bear this in mind if at times the artwork seems a bit rough and ready.

Publishers Universal have stated that they’ve learned from their mistakes and should their future plans materialise to publish further novels in the series they won’t be so rash as to make wholesale changes. I have to admit that The Ballad of the Salt Sea isn’t perfect, it took me two reading to get it, and hopefully future reprints of the story will be better served. A definite recommendation but one which comes with some caveats.
I'll end this review on a positive note. On page 94 Pratt has a nice visual reference to his home town. Those who are obervant should have no probelms in guessing which is Pratt's native city.


Thursday, August 02, 2012

Italian Noir: The Story of Italian Crime Fiction 

Like its Irish counterpart Italian crime fiction is currently undergoing some long overdue critical and commercial success. Starting with  Andrea Camilleri creator of the Inspector Montalbano series of novels, Italian Noir: The Story of Italian Crime Fiction, charts the history of Italian crime and it’s recent rise to fame.

Carlo Emilio Gadda’s novel "That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana" is cited as being the genesis of the Italian thriller. First published in 1957 Gadda’s novel uses a series of murders in Rome to serve as a critique of the fascist government of Benito Mussolini.

Other novelists featuring in the film are Leonardo Sciascia, author of "The Owl" and "The Moro Affair", and Massimo Carlotto, author of the "The Fugutive", whose own life story makes for fascinating reading.

Relatively unknown, in English speaking countries Giancarlo de Cataldo and Barbara Baraldi are also featured. Being a judge de Cataldo reveals he had access to places, people and files which were strictly off limits to other writers.

Finally we are introduced to Carlo Lucarelli whose novel "Almost Blue" was a best seller in Italy and beyond. As well as being a writer Lucarelli presents his owncrime  investigative programme on Italian tv.

If Italian crime fiction has a common theme it is that by the end of the novel things are not so clear cut. A certain ambiguity remains and crimes are often not solved, or, if they are, as many questions as answers remain.
First broadcast in 2010 Italian Noir: The Story of Italian Crime Fiction will serve as an excellent introduction to Italy its crime writers and recent history of political and social problems. Ciao bella.


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