Have you ever heard of the Italian author Emilio Salgari?
As diverse a group of artists as Federico Fellini, Umberto Eco and Sergio Leone were all said to be fans of and heavily influenced by Salgari, who is the father of adventure, fantasy and science fiction genre writing in Italy.
I hadn't ever come across his work, but his most famous fictional character Sandokan,The Pirate of Malaysia was quite familiar to my brother-in-law Alex who watched his exploits on television while growing up in Cuba in the 1970's, and he came to Malaysia convinced that if he wasn't going to meet Sandokan there in person, at least he was going to find a large contemporary fan base there for this swashbuckling adventure hero that had captured his childhood imagination.
Alas, not one person we met in Kuala Lumpur, not even the clerk at the local video store, had ever heard of S-A-N-D-O-K-A-N, and we couldn't find a copy of either the Steve Reeves-starring 1960's movies based on Salgari's books, nor the incredibly popular Indian tv series from the 1970's starring Kabir Bedi.
The anti-imperial and anti-colonial themes of Salgari's pioneering genre fiction may have been popular in third world countries (Che Guevara is said to have read 63 of Salgari's books), but few Malay's of the 21st Century seem to be looking back at this fantasy character who embodied the spirit of revolt against the British and Dutch occupation and exploitation of their country.
Salgari himself had never been to Malaysia, nor to the Caribbean, nor the Wild West, nor any of the romantic spots of high adventure that provided the backdrop for his fantastic tales. Rejected as a naval officer, he never ventured further than the Adriatic Sea, but he was an avid consumer of foreign newspapers and magazines and maps that fed his imagination and inspired the voluminous output of this Italian peer of our own Edgar Rice Burroughs.
But just as this "armchair adventurer" did not need to travel through the rain forests of Sarawak to live the vicarious life of a South Seas pirate, neither was a familiarity with his books or films required for me to take inspiration from his roguish hero - to project myself from my hospital bed and my crutches and wheelchair and painkillers to the fantasy realm of Salgari's 19th century jungles, where my disabilities disappeared and I too was wrestling tigers like SANDOKAN!