Paper Myths
HUGO PRATT (1927-1995)
Veljko Damjanovic

Many news agencies around Europe announced on August 20th 1995 that one of the greatest creators of the ninth art, Hugo Pratt, died of cancer at the age of sixty-eight. Did you know that Corto knew Hemingway, Hessel, and Joyce, that he was on friendly terms with Jack London, Butch Cassidy, and the Sundance Kid, that he witnessed the death of baron Manfred von Richthofen, who went under the name of the Red Baron? He had spent a moment with the young German pilot Herman Goering, and neither one of them was aware that their encounter had happened. Throughout his turbulent life Corto had been meeting, in various ways, the leaders of the Irish revolution, Stalin, the generals of the Russian White Guard, Pancho Villa, Lawrence of Arabia, Tamara de Lempicka, Parazelsus, and many others. "I'd better not try to understand at all. I could find out that you are the same stuff that dreams are made of..." said Corto once. That is what Pratt's universe is like: wonderful and like a fairy tale on one hand, and amazingly real on the other.

Pratt has mastered building parallel histories and breathing life into the paper myths - it would be utterly senseless to use the past tense here, since his skill has made his characters and works keep on living an independent life, adding to their own history. If we take a look at any episode of Corto, it is likely to appear to us unbelievably real and probable. Moreover, the very same dose of verisimilitude will persuade us that all these irrational matters are absolutely real. Corto moves through an authentic age (the beginning and the first half of the twentieth century); he is drawn into the whirlwind of history (the war between Russia and Japan, the Great War, the conquests of Lawrence of Arabia, the Mexican revolution, the October revolution, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Spanish civil war...), wherein he comes across many a famous historical character. The words uttered by another wizard of narrative, Umberto Eco, may best confirm Pratt's odd mixture of detachment and historical relevance: "Whenever I want to learn something about life and reality, I read Corto Maltese. Repeatedly..." That is where we fall into Pratt's trap which Corto himself is never caught in. Never really involved in the action, Corto observes everything from a certain distance, incessantly smiling ironically like a person superior to all that. Even when things happen to himself, he behaves as an observer. No wonder that, at the end of an episode, he says: "The only thing I am sure about is that my neck turned stiff because of all that looking at the skies. In all this mess that is what I have been doing!"

Pratt was a great connoisseur of "the geography of magic and legends" and ardently commited to the exploration of occult sciences. We could well compare him to Borges or, better still, to Umberto Eco. However, not for a moment must we forget that Pratt's work is a product of pop culture. It looked up to the American syndicated comics from the thirties and forties and was influenced by adventure movies from the same period, as well as adventure novels by Jack London and Joseph Conrad. Pratt's brilliant mind, his capacity to sublimate acquired knowledge, and his unusually rich experience elevated this offspring of pop culture to the level of the so called elite culture.

It is not a secret that Pratt's comics have become fashionable in intellectual circles of Western Europe, or that seventy doctoral dissertations have been written so far about the myth of Corto Maltese. Corto influenced literature no less. In Yugoslavia, Vasa Pavkovic and Zoran Djukanovic did research on Corto, while Zoran Stefanovic based his play, Island Stories, upon Corto's adventures. In the novel, The Destiny and the Comments by Radoslav Petkovich, Corto is one of the protagonists, while he appears as a leading character in Vladimir Pistalo's novelette, Corto Maltese.

Corto's charisma was also an imposition upon both his creator and his other works. That is why I shall not use this occasion to discuss Sergeant Coinsky or Joe the Jesuit. Still, I cannot help mentioning Rasputin, probably the only character from popular culture who is as remarkable as Corto and capable of following him, although his aura is of a different kind. Much has been written about Pratt's interesting biography, but it seems more pertinent - at a time when continued translation of the late work is crucial - to deal with events related to his leaving life's pageant.

Immediately before his death he finished, together with Umberto Eco, his last work called The Last Flight of the Little Prince. That is the story about the last six minutes of Antoine de Saint Exupery's life; the legendary French writer meets his own hero, at the height of 6,500 meters, somewhere above the Mediterranean Sea. This work belongs to the best, especially when it comes to drawing. Pratt finally achieved a highly expressive and relaxed, almost childlike drawing that he had been striving for all his life. What comes up as especially interesting is that Pratt was another artist who passed away shortly after having dealt with the Little Prince. Let us mention just one very popular Belgrade actor for children, Milenko Jovanovic, aka Sumenko, and Exupery himself, of course.

After all this, do not wonder if you somewhere, sometime meet Corto Maltese instead of the Little Prince.... In the night between June 20th and 21st, over Rio de la Plata, two waning moons appeared in the sky. Strange. Everybody knows that two moons in the young appear on June 13th, but on the 20th...? But the truth is, many a moon could have been seen that year....






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