Summary (from Goodreads):
Few can live in the Black Jungle, a desolate place teeming with wild dangerous beasts. Yet it is among its dark forests and bamboo groves that the renowned hunter Tremal-Naik makes his home. For years he has lived there in peace, quietly going about his trade until, one night, a strange apparition appears before him - a beautiful young woman that vanishes in an instant. Within days, strange music is heard in the jungle then one of his men is found dead without a mark upon his body. Determined to get some answers, the hunter sets off with his faithful servant Kammamuri, but as they head deeper into the jungles of the Sundarbans, they soon find their own lives at risk; a deadly new foe has been watching their every move, a foe that threatens all of British India.
When I was a child, I was a fan of Sandokan, both the cartoons and the TV mini series starring Kabir Bedi. I am also a fan of classic adventure novels, as cheesy as they are. It was only a matter of time to get my hands on The Mystery of the Black Jungle, the first book on The Pirates of Malaysia series, which deals with Sandokan and his crew.
Well, I finally did, and I didn't love it.
I actually have mixed feelings about this one. Even for a classic adventure, the characters are rather flat and every little mystery that conforms the plot is really very illogical. Tremal-Naik, the hero, is too impetuous and empty-headed to be a proper main character - he is not a good adventure leader. Kammamuri, his servant, is a far more interesting and intelligent character. Unfortunately, he only appears in the first half of the novel. But honestly, at some point Tremal-Naik faces an horde of enemies armed with some sort of gun and his knives. And what does he do? Discard the knives, discharge his gun in a lake, and start hitting thugs with the gun butt. Not the best plan there, pal. As readers, we are supposed to ascribe his lack of brains to his sudden infatuation with Ada (who, according to classic adventure novel standards is the only female in the whole book, nothing more than a love interest/object). The same flat characterization can be found in Suyodhana, the main antagonist. But it all just comes across as comical, when it should induce tension. On top of that, the (rather ludicrous) central conflict wouldn't exist if one of the characters hadn't randomly decided to change his name. The rushed ending, anagnorisis included, spans only about a page and a half.
Fortunately, although The Mystery of the Black Jungle has very many problems, it isn't devoid of virtues. For one thing, the representation of POC is by far the best I've encountered in a novel of this time and age. They are varied. It's amazing how something so simple can feel so refreshing. They aren't all Indians and that's it - Salgari respectfully describes changes in skin tone, facial hair, eye shape and colour, and how these features were usually associated with people from different geographical areas. At some point, Tremal-Naik even uses the racial prejudices of a white man as an advantage to carry out a risky plan, and it pays out. These descriptions don't feel out of place, since Salgari was describing what was considered an exotic place to Europeans who hadn't travelled all that much. He also makes a point about the peaceful coexistence of different religions, and shows customs from an 'inside' point of view, trying to make a Western reader understand that something which can seem barbaric or ridiculous to us is just a religious or superstitious custom as good (or bad!) as those present in Europe. He sometimes slips unrespectful comments or expresses disgust at some traditions, but Salgari was definitely quite open-minded for a 19th-century Italian man. And he doesn't stop there. He makes his characters very vocal about British colonialism - how they were destroying traditions and standardizing everyone to fit in their mold of savages in order to rule more easily over India.
At the end of the novel, I was thankful for the purposeful ambiguous ending and for its political stance, but it definitely wasn't a very entertaining read.
Have you read this book? Please, leave a link to your review in the comments and I will link you here!