I meet Marco Steiner at the Sellerio booth, where he is presenting his latest book, Il corvo di pietra, The Stone Crow, a novel featuring a renowned character with whom Marco has had a long relationship – a young Corto Maltese. Steiner met Hugo Pratt, the creator of Corto, in the late 80s, and became his trusted collaborator as they engaged in linguistic research for Pratt’s late stories and projects. The two shared a passion for adventure literature, travel, and music. One of the most beautiful works they produced together was Avevo un appuntamento (Socrates, 1994), I Had an Appointment, a complex book in which Pratt recounts his voyages in the Pacific, from Easter Island to Pago Pago, from Rarotonga to New Ireland; Omar Calabrese describes this effort as “one of the most beautiful works of structural anthropology which I have had the privilege of reading in recent years.” After Pratt’s death, Steiner completed Pratt’s unfinished novel, Corte Sconta detta Arcana (Einaudi, 1996), The Mysteries of Corte Sconta carefully tracing the style of the original. From 2004 to 2010, together with Swiss photographer Marco D’Anna, Steiner traveled in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America, visiting the places frequented by Corto Maltese in his stories. These travels have given rise to new work on the genesis of Corto, which are informed by a style that synthesizes journalism, history, and literature. I luoghi dell’avventura (Rizzoli-Lizard 2011), Sites of Adventure, brings together all the prefaces written by Steiner along with the imagery of Pratt and D’Anna. In Il corvo di pietra we see Marco Steiner the author establishing an autonomous identity. The young Corto Maltese here is an homage to Pratt and appears sporadically throughout the novel: the true main character is the sea voyage itself, from the Isle of Man to Malta and Sicily, and then to Venice and back again, a journey across the map, across time, and into the human soul, a journey of growth. The writing does not recall the world of the graphic novel, but instead gives a sense of watercolor; the images that emerge here are not so much descriptive as evocative, liquid tonalities that touch the senses with perceptions of colors, smells, aromas, and flavors. Marco, in this journey you touch upon various themes, and Sicily seems to be the most important of these. What does this island mean to you? This island is a unique world, rich in contrasts, full of flavor and color, baroque and at the same time absolutely impalpable and metaphysical. My story happened to begin right here, slowly and gradually taking shape as I strived to expand my understanding of this land by interacting with the marvelous people I’ve met. It has been a personal journey, as I’ve gained ever deeper knowledge, like climbing down into a cave of treasures where the essence of this island is stored, but in fact Sicily is a very complex world that takes its time to reveal itself. I began with a true story, a family with whom I’ve become close, whose great grandmother imported ceramics from England to Sicily. I then met Vincenzo Cascone, a talented young videographer who spoke to me of a hidden treasure, the Truvature, an engaging blend of the sacred and the profane, of history and legend. Then, through the acquaintance of a group of friends, I came to learn more about the stories of Val di Noto and of the Contea di Modica. I met with these friends at the Circolo Vitaliano Brancati, an incredible place in Scicli. The atmosphere is timeless: people get together to speak about literature, read the papers, have a coffee, or simply converse. I’ve experienced such things only here, even in the ancient Ragusa Ibla there’s a venerable Conversation Circle. This is what goes on in Sicily today in the age of social networking and the forms of solitude brought on by the new media. In Ragusa Ibla there’s yet another treasure, Duomo, a restaurant owned by Ciccio Sultano, another person I met by chance, another person passionate about Corto Maltese. Ciccio is not just an amazing chef; he has been another true guide for me, a key to the world of the most authentic flavors of Sicily. To achieve this, it is necessary to begin with the fundamentals of local cuisine, from the purest oils and salts, the products of sun, sea, the earth and wind. From that starting point, the rest becomes discovery, a voyage into the philosophy of slow eating, in which you maintain an awareness of the place of origin of an almond, an anchovy, or a tomato. And then there’s the art, the developed taste, and the imagination which blend ancient recipes with a unique elegance, with a drive to produce new visual creations. The tourist arrives in a certain place, looks around, has a bite, gathers some impressions and returns happier, perhaps more relaxed, but essentially unchanged from when he left home; the traveler enters fully into the place and changes, accumulating new experiences. That is why I love to say, “To truly see things, you shouldn’t just look, you should enter.” And I have sought to enter into the true heart of Sicily, and this tale itself is a bit of a metaphor of this journey. Another important moment in Il corvo is when the two teenagers meet a rabbi in Venice. Melchisedec is both a guide and a clairvoyant. What is that space between sight and vision, which you often love referring to? My story speaks of alchemy, but even this is a pretext, the alchemy I prefer is that which unites the writer writing with the paper pages of the book, which are leafed through, with the eyes and hands carrying me into the depths of the world of the reader. There’s a beautiful space that can open up between the lines I have written and the visions produced by the imagination of the reader, by her cultural background, by the place where she reads, the sounds or the music which surround her as she reads my words. This is a flux that can prime a new experience, or at least, something that I consider precious, curiosity. This is a voyage that is undertaken through literature, a shared voyage that can, for a few hours or days, unite the person who tells the story with the person who reads it. I would love to succeed in transporting this person far away, in a voyage of words, to a new world, where everything is ready to be seen, to be heard, and to be enjoyed. My dream is to take the reader on a kind of magic carpet, into the space of a tale, and arrive in a world where all is still possible, especially dreaming. Roland Barthes has said that the task of science is to describe the truth of reality, but literary creation reveals the capacity of constructing infinite worlds which have nothing to do with truth, but which outline “possible truths” in the worlds created by the imagination … This is what it is to read between the lines: moving aside the words like curtains and then opening a window onto another world, onto a vision. What I would like to accomplish with my writing is this: to succeed in opening those curtains and that window, but leaving to the reader the possibility of seeing a sky at times cloudy and of feeling either the freshness or the humidity of the air. I don’t want to guide his fancy too rigorously, I only want to set him on the path, accompany him a short way and then let him carry on himself. Corto Maltese does essentially the same thing, he is an opener of doors.
The entire novel is rich in symbols. In the final chapters we find visions induced by laudanum, and prophesying dreams, there is talk of Understanding, of dark and light, of matter and spirit. What is the true treasure? Could it be the quest itself? This is precisely it: the Treasure is knowledge, and the Voyage that is necessary to find its true route. The best way to get there is, as I’ve said, a healthy curiosity, together with the willingness to let yourself go, and then it’s important to never take yourself too seriously. The rest is good luck and the knowledge that this process may take a long time indeed. Knowledge is the fruit of study, of searching, and this can be a lovely path, but one that is always encumbered with obstacles that must be overcome. At times you throw yourself into pure space, at others you make use of ropes that are more or less reliable, and at others you burn bridges but you always go forward. There are moments of necessary rest, but also blockages, solitude, exhaustion – all of this is part of the voyage itself, because after every day we need the night, to rest or to think. Symbols help to represent these phases. The sea voyage undertaken by my characters follows a route that is also one of climates and colors. From a cold and grey Scotland, the sailors gradually enter the heat and azure of the Mediterranean, the cradle of classical culture, on to Sicily, with its whole history of being a crossroads and of the forms of domination which have exploited and violated her but which ultimately enriched this place with elements that may not otherwise have existed here. We then get to Venice, the hometown of Hugo Pratt, not to mention of Marco Polo, the traveler. It is a magical place where the waters of the Mediterranean gather and find refuge, like a sort of maternal bosom where one renews energy and at the right moment departs for the East, towards the sun. Perhaps towards a new life. What is better than a sea voyage to speak of trial, of obstacles to overcome, of discovery, of births and rebirths? Could the Odyssey be the most beautiful sea adventure in the world? Could the Mediterranean be perhaps the amniotic fluid of the worlds which encounter and speak to one another across these waters? Isn’t it the locus of both genesis and delineation of our culture? Corto Maltese, created in 1967 by Hugo Pratt, is born, appropriately, in Malta, an island which in those days constituted a point of contact between the Anglo-Saxon world and the peoples of the Mediterranean. Today, however, in Il corvo di pietra the young Corto Maltese is in a certain sense reborn in Sicily, the Mediterranean island which has become the practical border between Africa, a “south” which aspires, and the rest of the world, which manages things. Sicily is seen by certain migrants as a point of arrival, of disembarkation, but also a place of access to the realization of dreams, to liberty, and above all to survival. Thus migrants leave behind an emptiness, poverty, and civil wars in order to undertake today’s true adventure, that of attempting to live a life by any means. This is a type of rebirth because it often cancels everything that came before. In connection with Il corvo, there is a planned exhibition at Galleria Nuages in Milano, one of the most important exhibition spaces for illustrative art, and one which has hosted the work of Luzzati, Folon, Topor, Moebius, Pericoli, Crepax, Pratt himself, and many others. Can you tell us more about your plans there? This is something that makes me very proud and very happy because a series of artists, who have spontaneously come forward, have seen something unique in my novel and have interpreted it, each in their own way. Here we go beyond visions, and come to what Gesualdo Bufalino called the Visible. Claudio Patanè has done sketches in charcoal and watercolor directly on the pages of my novel. Giovanni Robustelli, who studied with Sergio Toppi, has employed his incredible technique and imagination to produce surprising little gems with his very simple and commonplace Bic pen. Stefano Babini, with his wonderful ability to interpret Pratt’s graphic art, has depicted some of the characters in Il corvo with a technique reminiscent of his great teacher, Hugo Pratt. Giovanni Blanco, another great Sicilian painter who now works in Bologna, was a great inspiration to me while I was writing Il corvo, by putting on an exhibition dedicated to Frank Lentini, the man with three legs, a true story which outdoes any fiction. Then there is a great friend, the photographer who has traveled alongside me to the places where Corto had his adventures: Marco D’Anna, who expresses himself through his painterly photographic techniques, his renowned Polaroid transfers. And then there will be those pieces by Sergio Toppi commissioned especially for Il corvo di pietra just before its publication. We shall see Pratt’s Corto Maltese attempting to converse with Puck, the Irish Crow. The exhibition will take place in Milano, at Galleria Nuages on Via del Lauro from September 18 to October 25, 2014. And after Il corvo di pietra? Does the story continue? The story of Il corvo di pietra has taken me on journey that continues to surprise me, and has offered me many opportunities to meet new friends, and many, many great fans of Corto Maltese. But what has really got me thinking the most is the realization that Corto is not only a magnificent character in graphic novels, who was invented by the great artist and writer Hugo Pratt; Corto Maltese is also a magnificent traveling companion. He has by now become a symbol of a certain kind of travel, free, beyond schemes and plans, but always searching and learning. A traveler who seeks adventure, but who maintains respect for the places he comes across, and the people he meets. And so it would be wonderful if the story of this unique band of people could continue because each of them has only begun to unfold his character, which would develop even more in the course of another story, and these personal nuances, in some way, also serve to delineate the character of the young Corto Maltese. Il corvo has been described as a novel about Corto’s coming of age. It may very well reveal facets of this highly complex character. Without spoiling any of the surprises in store in the next installment of this story, I have already said that Venice is perhaps the original embarkation point for voyages to the East and so it shall be: my sailors will depart for the East, and this time the voyage will be long, full of adventure and encounters with new characters, most of all a woman, a young and very courageous woman. Il corvo di pietra is a novel tinged with the ochre of the land of Sicily, with the yellow of its lemons, with the orange and red of its fruits; the aroma is that of bread just out of the oven, of stone walls loaded with prickly pear and of red wine. The next novel, however, will be greener, perhaps sultrier; there will also perhaps be the black of mysterious nights, and surely the azure sea, sometimes streaked in the silvery grey of rain or wrapped in clouds. The aroma will be that of Eastern spices and the sounds of Asian jungles tangled with vegetation and full of eyes that watch. But the theme will be fundamentally the same, the yearning for liberty, for the loosening of constraints, and for new worlds to discover.