The Ballad of the Salt Sea (2002)
“He’s dreaming with his eyes open, and those that dream with their eyes open are dangerous, for they do not know when their dreams come to an end” (Hugo Pratt, taking inspiration from the famous quote by T.E. Lawrence).
“When I want to relax, I read an essay by Engels. When I want something more serious to read, I read Corto Maltese” (Umberto Eco).
“La Ballade de la mer salée” or “The Ballad of the Salt Sea” (2002) is a French-language TV animation based on the Italian comics of the adventures of Corto Maltese by Hugo Pratt. Corto Maltese is a mysterious and freedom-loving adventurer and sailor who travels the world in search of excitement and fortune, and is found in the early twentieth century in such places as Southern Europe, Arabia, Africa and Russia. In “The Ballad of the Salt Sea”, Corto is found sailing in the Pacific Ocean, and is in the midst of a shady deal with Rasputin, a psychopathic pirate and a Siberian army escapee, and with a man simply called the Monk, while the World War I is about to officially begin and the ocean is full of military ships.
Chronologically, “The Ballad of the Salt Sea” is the second earliest of Corto Maltese’s adventures, and the animation first follows Pandora Groovesnore, the daughter of a rich Australian industrialist, as she recounts the events of her past: that time when she was a teenager, and was shipwrecked with her cousin Cain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in November 1913. Pandora and Cain are taken prisoners on a pirate ship led by the abusive Rasputin, who has a plan to demand a ransom for the pair. Here, the comics and the animation instil in the reader this sense of nostalgia and bitter-sweet melancholy for the past. In the comics, it is the ocean itself which starts the tale, putting romanticism and originality of the comics at its very forefront, and it is exactly these qualities that more or less define all of the Corto Maltese adventures. Here, the European tradition of comic animation is ever present, accentuating day-dreaming qualities and subtlety in story-telling, which is evident in the way the comics and the animation take pains to set the right atmosphere. Unlike in the comics, we are never shown how Pandora and Cain were rescued in the animation, probably so as to not “dim” the rescuing of Corto Maltese.
So, Rasputin and his crew also rescue Corto Maltese, who has suffered a mutiny on his ship, and is now involved with Rasputin and the Monk in a plan to hijack a Dutch cargo ship with coal to help the German navy in the Pacific with fuel. The Germans are willing to pay a lot of gold for their fuel, and Admiral Von Speeke of the German navy is behind the plan. Although Rasputin captures the Dutch boat with the coal, he is worried that the Australian pair of teenagers, Pandora and Cain, will fail his plans to strike a deal with the Germans. Therefore, Corto goes with the Australian pair to another boat, while Rasputin deals with the Germans and makes them buy his newly acquired coal in Kaiserine, New Guinea. Meanwhile, the secretive Monk, allegedly a wayward Catholic priest, hides in the island called “La Escondida”, waiting for the return of Rasputin and Corto. What follows is the tale full of adventure and surprises, involving more shipwrecks, cannibals, and sharks and giant octopus fights, while, at the end, there is a long-awaited meeting with the Monk, who has more mysteries to unveil.
Although the plot sounds complicated, the pace of the animation is slow enough to get to grips with what is going on in the story, and Corto’s turbulent, but interesting relationship with Pandora and Cain often provides a refreshing break from the spider-web-like complexities of the maritime warfare. The names of the teenagers are also telling. In mythology, Pandora (the name translates as “all gifted”) is the one who is curious enough to open the box of mysteries, and, here, in this story, Pandora is the one to slowly uncover the true personality of Corto, saying at one point in the animation: “You are not as bad you try to look”. Courageous Cain in “The Ballad of the Salt Sea” is also the one to “betray” Corto by shooting at him, not trusting him completely in the beginning.
“The Ballad of the Salt Sea” (2002) is faithful to its original source and follows closely the plot, but it is still rather limited in what it portrays, and some suspense is taken out of the comics. Rather colourful, the animation is never elaborate and is not very convincing, but it is effective in a way it tries to convey the atmosphere of the world of Corto Maltese, for example, through music. Hugo Pratt’s creations are usually full of colonial themes, and the animation makes full use of colours and sounds to portray the lives of indigenous people on the islands. Such character as Tarao, a native of Fiji, particularly stands out, and the pleasure of reading or watching the Corto Maltese series is that you always get a slightly different introduction to varied cultures and familiar stereotypes. In the comics, Corto looks older and more abrasive than the younger, suaver version of the animation. This perhaps accentuates Corto’s idealistic and sentimental views of life, and even his naiveté. Pandora is also less “sexualised” in the animation, which is a good decision since the relationship between Corto and Pandora is supposed to be purely platonic.
The subtlety of Corto Maltese may not be that well appreciated or even understood in the US. It is easy to define the character as European Indiana Jones, but this will not be entirely correct. Contrary to the American tradition, Corto is at ease just taking a back seat in the story, and enjoying the ride unhurriedly, slowly taking in the stunning view of the Pacific Ocean or contemplating the chaos of the war, lighting up his cigar and quoting Rimbaud. Unlike a lead action character, Corto is often simply a witness to historical events, and, in his travels, meets such famous historical figures as Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Hermann Hesse and Joseph Conrad. In “The Ballad of the Salt Sea“, Corto is also introduced almost like a secondary character, adrift in the ocean, shamefully tied to some floating wood by his own crew who he could not take under control. This is not a stellar first appearance the reader or the viewer may expect of the hero of the comics, but this makes his character even more enticing and mysterious. In fact, one of the appeals of the comics and animation is that Corto Maltese is so complex and enigmatic. The son of a sailor from Cornwall and a gypsy from Seville, Corto was once schooled in Torah/Kabbalah, and displays intellectual curiosity whenever the circumstances allow. Moreover, this self-assured man, who often sees beneath the appearances and into the heart of the matter, has a special relationship with fate, having carved his own fate line on his hand when he found out he did not have one. The curious thing here is that although Corto is portrayed as having romantic/sentimental views on life, his comments are often full of irony and sarcasm, and he will challenge the status quo.
Corto Maltese’s appearance is that of a handsome man, charming, slim and sleek, but it is his personality which astonishes the most, because it is so imperfect. It is true that Corto Maltese has a number of positive qualities, such as his courage, kindness and loyalty to his friends; and he will often protect “the underdog”. However, in essence, Corto is a true anti-hero: a moody wanderer, who appears too self-absorbed. In some stories, it is clear that he is a sly hypocrite, and though he is quick to defend the true innocents, in general, he has no problem with pirating, stealing and killing. In “The Ballad of the Salt Sea”, Corto is outraged by Rasputin’s killing spree, when Rasputin shoots at the Dutch navy crew after taking their coal, but Corto is also as much a profiteer of war as Rasputin and the Monk. The familiar sayings come to mind here, such as “he who does not prevent a crime when he can, encourages it” (Seneca), and “the world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” (Einstein). In fact, it is not sometimes easy to accept Corto’s neutrality in times of moral crisis, and Dante himself once said that the darkest places in hell are reserved for just these people. The key word here is ambiguity, and both Corto Maltese and his stories of travel have this quality, which is both intriguing and uncomfortable at the same time.
Although Corto Maltese is popular in Europe, he is hardly known in the US, and the comics series is usually jokingly called “Europe’s best secret”. If you do get hold of the English version of this comics, take notice of this warning, and the fact that, naturally, the comics in the original language sounds more lyrical and, strangely, the story is somehow more ironic.
In sum, the narratives of Corto Maltese are often much more intricate and sophisticated than may be imagined, and “The Ballad of the Salt Sea” is no different. Although it may not be the best of Corto’s adventures in the series, richly-coloured “The Ballad of the Salt Sea” will still be enjoyed by those who are into adult animation and have a penchant for adventurous tales with bold characters and historical plots. The animation itself is far from being elaborate (it is at times even very crude), and the end result may appear underwhelming, but as with many of Corto Maltese’s travels, it is the journey itself (including its romanticism and aesthetics, underpinned by a thought-provoking setting), rather than the destination, that matters. 6/10