Blesok no. 34, September-October, 2003
World without Corto
When Corto was ten, he lived in Cordoba with his mother, a Spanish Gipsy, the renounced Nina de Gibraltar, and with his father, a British soldier. One afternoon, his mother’s friend Amalia wished to read the child’s destiny from his palm. She was horrified when she saw that Corto did not have the fortune line at all. Wanting to compensate for this serious shortcoming of nature, and respond to this, probably first provocation of destiny in his case, the boy immediately reached for his father’s shaving blade and carved a long and deep fortune line, which would stay on his palm from that moment on. That was how, they say, life’s ups and downs of the famous soldier with an earring on his left ear, an adventurer and anarchist started; according to some, he was an incurable melancholic and romantic, and according to others, he was nothing but a plain smuggler and pirate.
The opening night of Pascal Morelli’s animated film in Paris last spring reminded me of this magnificent character and his creator, Hugo Pratt, but also of an unpleasant fact. Getting out of the cinema, after I had been watching the Maltese on the screen for more than an hour, it occurred to me that I was in fact stepping into the world without Corto. I was upset by this thought, and I tried to find some explanation, getting into a parallel biographic slalom. I decided to compare Corto and Pratt, led by the factual matches and the oppositions between the life of the artist and his creation. As a matter of fact, didn’t Pratt himself often wanted to put the sign of equality or at least the sign of similarity between himself and Corto, and then he usually referred to Pesoa and the claim that man is what he dreams he is. Another poet seems to pay an important role here. Of course, it is Rimbaud, whose verses can be seen in the Ethiopian adventures of Corto Maltese. I is someone else, the axiom of this young French weapons smuggler is some mystic way interfered in the creation of the myth of Corto Maltese. In the end, as much as Pratt used his own life vortex when creating his most famous character, it seems that the story of Corto had a flashback effect on the history of Pratt’s life as well, at least the one he offered to the public. As if the sailor had become the inseparable other, the real alter ego of his creator, what he was, what he wanted to be, what he dreamt of. But, let us start, nevertheless, step by step in untwining those unusual ties that had created an irresistible trap for the reader.
It should be immediately said that Pratt did not need too much encouragement to dream. His life path places him justly shoulder by shoulder to wonderers, nomads, liars, heretics, and illusionists, as it was Corto. He was born in Rimini, but he chose Venice for his town. As Corto’s, his own father was also of British origin, and his mother was a descendant of the Sefards, who came to Moreno via Turkey. “I am a bastard with an enormous pedigree”, Pratt would joyfully end the story of his British, Turkish, Spanish and Jewish roots. He claimed that he had even inherited an old key from the end of 15 century, which was brought by the Sefard members of his family after they had been banished from Spain and he managed to open the gates of a house in Toledo with it, five centuries later. The data we have on Pratt’s life still have to be taken with some reserve, especially if he himself was their source. “I can tell my life in thirteen different ways”, he used to say. The mystifications and planting of uncheckable but exciting facts in his real life story are part of his autobiographical tricks. And while Corto experienced his first adventures in China during the uprising of the Boxers when he was only thirteen, the adventurous life of his creator started at a similar age when he left to Italian Abyssinia, where Pratt’s father, a sworn fascist, got a public administration job. It was as “the youngest Mussolini’s black shirt”, as he bragged, as he spent his childhood in Ethiopia, learnt some local dialects and watched the breakdown of the Italian colonial dream. His weakness for uniforms comes from that time. He was only sixteen when he returned to Venice, where the Nazis arrested him as a South African spy. This information is undoubtedly true, and even truer is Pratt’s escape, via partisans, to the ally army. He would witness the end of the war with them, as a translator at the British army. After all the excitement he returns to Venice, but, with a restless spirit, he would not stay in Europe long. In Argentina, where many European illustrators found refuge at those times, he spent at least ten more years. There, as he says, except for H.L. Borges, he also met all kinds of desperados from the old world, former Ustashas and Nazis, and among them, as he claimed, even Eichman himself. The return to Europe at the beginning of the sixties was of course motivated by a complicated affair with a mysterious woman.
Corto Maltese was created in the later stage of Pratt’s career. His name was not accidental. Corto in Spanish slang can mean thief, robber and pirate, which marks his adventurous character and the business he is in, while Maltese clearly indicates the place of his birth, the island of Malta, which obtained its independence those years. Eighty years earlier, in 1887, the famous sailor was born in La Valletta. In the archives of all port captaincies and coast guards his tall figure, the elegant sailor suit, captain’s cap and the earring on his left ear are described. The last detail tells something only to the connoisseurs of the blue seas, because the earring on his left ear is a sign of belonging to the trade navy and a confirmation of crossing Cape Horn. He was considered to have been friends with Rasputin, the deserter of the Tsar army and the faithful, although unpredictable comrade, and Jack London, the correspondent of the American newspapers, whom he met in 1904 in Manchuria, during the Russian-Japanese war. It was also noted that at the beginning of the World War I he smuggled goods for the Germans, while in 1917 he was a participant in the sea battle on the Adriatic, and in 1918, the witness of the final fall of the big Red Barron.
He had proven his affection towards the revolutionary cause, which shook the world those years, for many times. When he had to choose, revolution was always closer to him, and it is especially clear in the episodes from Asia. It is Corto’s trip to Siberia in 1919 that Pascal Morelli chose as a topic of his animated film, which to the hero of the comics gives something very unusual, even unpleasant for the fans of Pratt’s skills, namely – movement and sound. At that time, the civil war is in Russia, a bulletproof train full with emperor’s gold travels through Siberia. The secret Chinese communist association Red Lanterns finds Corto in Hong Kong and begs him to help them get that gold, of course, in the name of higher goals. Corto accepts the offer and postpones the debate about the prize. As usual, he is not best with money. In this way, he gets involved in the Asian chaos, dominated by the beautiful countesses, mad barons, and Asian masters of war and revolutionary forces that are facing the future. In the end, Corto manages to help his red friends and get out of it all alive and without a single dime, but his sentimental nature can not separate work from feelings. In this way, Corto still suffers from his affection to Changai Lee, a young and dangerous commissar, and a future collaborator of Mao Tse-tung. Revolution and love do not go hand in hand; Corto had to understand, once again put on his sailor’s coat and leave Changai Lee on her way to a better and brighter tomorrow, getting out of that exciting episode with yet another wound on his heart.
And here, oh, Corto’s weakness is revealed, namely, his serious problems with women. And while Hugo Pratt went from one woman to another as a restless ship, claiming that he had a child with an Amazon Indian, he never attributed similar features to his character. Corto was and remained a man of one woman, in spite of his occasional infatuations that might be attributed to his melancholic nature. Her name is Banshee O’ Danann. He met this Irish woman during the Irish revolution and only her, of all women he called to come with him to his insecure and exotic travels. Banshee, oh!, refused, convinced that she brought misery to those she loved. After this statement, the heart of the romantic sailor would forever break. The other women brought him only troubles. They either tried to kill him, like Venexiana Stevenson, or seriously were on his way in the service of the enemy, or he killed for them like in the case of Louise Brookszowyc, trapped in the prostitution chain, whom he revenged by sinking in lead the body of the Argentinean chief of police, the damn Estevez.
After the described Siberian episode, he started the search for the treasure of Alexander the Great and in this way he almost lost his life. Unlike J.B. Tito, he would tell Stalin “thank you”, and not the insulting “no”, because, namely, it was Stalin himself who saved his life then. In Azerbaijan, Corto falls into the trap of the Red Army. The local officers, following the regular method, take him to be shot, as they could not know that the Soviet Secretary of National Issues and Corto met in Ancona in 1907, when Dzhugashvili was but a modest receptionist at the seaside hotel. “Do you remember Ancona?” Corto says, when Stalin answers the phone. The fast intervention of the State leader would bring him back to life and enable him to continue the started adventure, which will finish with his empty pockets again. Still, “Thank you, comrade Stalin!”
Besides the temporary piracy, travels to Africa and South America, as well as the introduction to Cabala studies, a personal adventure deprived of a broader historical context, Corto Maltese will lastly return to the stage of the world events at the beginning of the Spanish civil war. At the start of this “last romantic war”, which was still worth participating in, we find him, of course, as a member of the republican international brigades. Thus, the defeat of the republicans in 1939 will be followed by a rarely mentioned, even hushed event: Corto’s definitive disappearance. The interpretations will follow. The knowledge of Torah and Talmud, as well as the meetings with the big scholars, support the theory of his friends and fans, according to which he had disappeared on purpose from the eyes of the public and according to which even now, carrying the secret of his immortality, he wonders around the world unnoticed. Isn’t that confirmed by the episode of Switzerland from the distant 1924, when Corto drank the Paracelsus potion that made him immortal? Pratt himself, under pressure, would deny the upsetting news about Corto’s’ death, and a letter dated 1956 should testify of the withdrawal and peaceful life he allegedly started leading, far from the world’s chaos. Maybe in some Caspian island he finally managed to read More’s Utopia, the book he could not understand during his life among people despite his many attempts. Or maybe he really reached the end of the line that his father’s razor cut into his hand that distant afternoon in Cordoba, disappearing in that way in the vortex of a war that forever destroyed some beautiful illusions? The complete withdrawal of this rising world, his departure without traces, would most probably be Corto’s answer.
Whatever it was, the handsome sailor thus lifted his collar for the last time and turned his back to the modern world, deprived of challenges and real adventures. The world in which the old fashioned costume of the British navy, conversations with the seagulls, thin white cigarettes, sloppiness with women and bad handling of money would be funny as the heroes of the past times are funny. Namely, “in the world where everything is electronic”, as Pratt later concluded, “where everything is calculated and industrialized, there is no room for guys like Corto.” The Maltese knew it well. Pratt himself did not give up easily. He enjoyed the world fame staying at his villa in Switzerland, among his thirty thousand books, and was flattered to be called Corto’s name. As if his own character was surpassed by his own other and it was needed to carefully tell about his life, to come closer a bit more to the one he dreamt of, and instead of him he experienced Corto. And indeed, this magic strive was spread via Corto to his readers as well. As if the elegant sailor, in the “electronic and calculated world” was the one that every citizen of the planet that is turned by profit and inequality, would like to be, just for a short while. With holes in his pockets, and his love for seagulls, with his resistance to every authority, with his disrespect to state laws, borders and social rules, but not without his own morality which he superposes to them, Corto is a complete outsider. His cynical view on the unchangeability of human affairs, careless attitude towards the dramatic historical events he was involved in, and his strong sensitivity for the misfortune of others, make this mixture of a sloppy thief and spiritual aristocrat a real antihero of our time. He is the captain who skillfully guides the ship we get on dreaming we are something other, a ship that leads us far from the world without Corto, just for a moment.
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska