To an English-speaking audience, this is a terribly obscure reference – but in many parts of the world, not least in Italy (and of course Claudio Margis is indeed an Italian), Emilio Salgari is regarded as a towering figure in the literary pantheon.
The Tigers of Mompracem was first published in serial form in 1883 and 1884 in La Nuova Arena and it appeared in book form around the turn of the century. It was an instant hit in its homeland (it spawned a series) and its influence spread through the cultural gateway of Trieste into the Austro-Hungarian heartland of Mitteleuropa.
In time, quite naturally, it was also to find favour in India and in the colonised territories of the South China Sea.
It did so because it embodies that most potent of combinations: it’s a swashbuckling adventure yarn; and it draws extra energy from an emotive political dimension.
Its racy style easily outpaces anything that the English-speaking world was producing at the time (Boy’s Own adventure fiction, or the works of H Rider Haggard, Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Fennimore Cooper) – and there are those who argue that Salgari, in a rather roundabout manner, was a major influence on the style of the Errol Flynn swashbuckling films Hollywood started churning out in the 1930s.
The political impetus underlying the narrative is all about Empire and the fight for freedom. The Tigers are led by the son of a Raja of Borneo deposed by British colonisers (it is set in 1849: in the real world, the west coast of Borneo was secured for the Empire by Sir Rodney Munday in 1846, consolidating earlier outreach work by the entrepreneurial James Brooke). Thus, in the book, the Royal Navy sees The Tigers as pirates and common criminals; The Tigers see themselves as freedom fighters.
Thus, one might surmise, the book’s unpopularity among early 20th Century readers in the great maritime powers – not just Britain, but France, Holland, Belgium, Portugal and even the USA. For those brought up to believe in the civilising mission of Empire, it makes for uncomfortable reading.
Historians with fanciful imaginations may read Salgari’s works as fictional precursors to the fall of Singapore in early 1942. Or, equally, begin to appreciate the viewpoint of German historians who tend to argue that the Great War was entered into by Britain not because of Viscount Grey’s handwringing over the plight of plucky Belgium but in order to curb German ambitions in Asia Minor – and beyond.
In Germany, the British Empire was (and is) seen very much as an Asian empire – an analysis that few British leaders (save for Churchill) shared in the 1930s.
But wait. We intended only to admire, from a distance, the stripes of a tiger. Now we seem to have boarded an express on the Baghdad Railway. Enough. We are not even in possession of a platform ticket. Time to detrain.