Corto Maltese is a sailor, an adventurer, a privateer,
a “man of fortune.”
From his mother he inherits his Mediterranean features and passion, from his father a longing for voyage, and from both a love of mystery and the talent of seeing beneath the surface of things.
Corto attends a Shul in Malta, and becomes familiar with the Kabala. As a young man, his immersion in the life of the ports of this sea island between Europe and Africa brings him face to face with a bracing and seemingly unlimited diversity of men and philosophies.
As his character unfolds, we see that Corto is just worldly enough to keep from being disillusioned with human nature, but never quite loses his inner compass, and is always ready to fight to affirm the principles of liberty and independence.
Early in his life, we get a glimpse of the quintessential Corto. One day in Cordoba, a friend of his mother’s takes hold of the boy’s left hand and begins telling his fortune. She is horrified to find that he has no life line. Corto is barely ten, but without hesitation he grabs one of his father’s straight razors and gouges one into his hand.
Joining the likes of Ulysses, Corto takes his place amongst the great wayfarers of history, yearning to stand before magic and mystery in distant lands. He takes his place amongst men and women who know that body and spirit are renewed through risk and adventure.
As each episode of his life is unveiled, Corto seems to be moved by clearly recognizable desires. A journey may begin with the hunt for treasure, for a magic ring, or by attempting to decode an ancient map. We soon learn that he is less interested in the goal at hand than in the sensual rush of new experiences. All the while, he never loses his innate appreciation for true friendship or genuine respect for the individuals who come across his path.
It is impossible to pin down Corto’s politics or his social ideals. The tales of his exploits take us to places as far flung as Manchuria, the Caribbean, Ethiopia, Ireland, Patagonia, New Guinea, and Polynesia, and span approximately the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Yet, his spirit and his language are utterly modern.
The world of Corto Maltese is a kaleidoscope of cultural meeting points, and of the possibilities within human nature when we are placed in vastly different environments, or faced with daunting and larger than life personalities. The range and intensity of these interfaces produce states of mind that are somewhere between reality and the imagination.
Corto’s interactions with women are based on mutual respect. The women in these tales are not just complex characters – they also act as cunning guides to the unknown. The world of Caribbean mysticism, including voodoo, casts its spell on us via the Brazilian sorceress Bocca Dorata. The ineluctable social and political logic of the Chinese Revolution is brought to life with the determined and resourceful rebel Shanghai Lil. The mythic legends of the Celtic world, and the fables of Viviana and of Merlin are evoked the melancholy Irish mystic Banshee. The culture and philosophy of Greece are sculpted in our minds with the words of the mysterious Ipazia, the reincarnation of a female caretaker and sage at the ill-fated library of Alexandria.
As we vicariously enjoy the storied life of Corto Maltese, we are encouragedto let our imaginations run free and delight in the world of surprise that await us at every turn. The adventures of Corto sometimes bring him face to face with actual historical figures, from Jack London to Stalin, from the exquisite Italian poet Gabrielle D’Annunzio to the resourceful Butch Cassidy. These encounters establish a broad historical context for us. We can then turn back to the lives and fortunes of the exquisitely constructed minor characters, who represent the men and women who were subject to grand historical forces that shook the world during the first part of the twentieth century.
World War I is brought to life through the fortunes of a small band of German sea raiders plying the waters of a Pacific Ocean crisscrossed by Papuan warriors and New Zealand cruisers; in the time of the Russian Revolution, we follow the fate of an armored train full of the hoarded treasures of a Russian nobility slated for extinction, and of the Bolsheviks, secret Chinese societies, and grand warlords who all hunger for the loot, each with a cherished agenda.
These are the wide horizons within which the stories unfold. Corto can be skeptical but at the same time is tirelessly curious about the wide world. His knowledge accumulates over the course of the many adventures and we start to see an idiosyncratic personal morality, bounded only by Corto’s adherence to principles of loyalty and friendship, principles that cut across lines of ethnicity and social class.
Corto exhibits the same self-assurance and frankness with everyone he meets. He is equally comfortable, and assertive, with British admirals or Maori sailors; he fights alongside Ethiopian rebels and renegade German officers. His intellectual curiosity is evident in his conversations with characters as diverse as Melchisedec the rabbi, the Chinese sage Vita Lunga, or a venerable Dominican monk on the waters of the Venetian lagoon.
Corto Maltese is a modern anti-hero who believes in the infinite potential of man, a risk-taker who is constantly testing the fine line between grand goals and utter recklessness. For Corto, even his spectacular failures expand his spirit, his knowledge, his circle of loyalties.
Corto Maltese is an ideal travel companion because he is a true friend, an intrepid guide, and an opener of doors.