The Secret Rose should probably not be anyone’s first exposure to Hugo Pratt. This is later Pratt at his most esoteric, clogged to the arteries with ambiguous literary references masquerading as pointedly elliptical conversation. A gripping mens’ adventure yarn in the mood of Caniff? Certainly not! A trip to visit Herman Hesse in the Swiss countryside of 1924, that sounds more the ticket. At times, this album seems to live down to certain stereotypes held in English-speaking precincts regarding Eurocomics conventions - behold a tough guy stereotype from American adventure stories, your cowboy or your back robber or sea captain, sipping his drink at the bar before slipping out with the shadows to desultorily sock some local toughs on the jaw. But first he’s got some wry comments to make about Malraux, and doesn’t that woman have large breasts in the most literary way?
You can see the traces of early and consistent Caniff worship in Pratt’s faces, horizontal smears of ink to indicate mouths. Corto Maltese is always smiling but it’s a feline smile, the corners of the line of his mouth just barely creased. The smallest flick of the artist’s wrist. The present volume offers less of Corto Maltese socking local toughs and more an extended dream sequence wherein the protagonist undertakes a quest for the Holy Grail after falling asleep reading a copy of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s thirteenth century romance Parzifal. As one does. He wanders through a dream landscape inspired by certain American movies that hadn’t been produced yet in 1924, such as King King. More importantly he wanders into long and subtle dialogue with figures from medieval illustrations. The subject of these deliberations for much of the colloquy is a figure named Klingsor, a marginal figure in Arthuriana who serves as a foil for Parzifal, but who is also alluded to in Hesse’s “Klingsor’s Last Summer.”
As you might imagine from that description the emotional register of the story is a bit dry. Corto is the kind of two-fisted sea captain who spends his free time driving across Switzerland discussing the finer points of Paracelsus and Kabbalah, which he enjoys doing about as much as Pratt likes drawing exquisitely detailed cars driving through the scenic Swiss countryside - that is, quite a bit. “What a strange sensation,” Corto says upon beholding Hesse’s house, “it’s as if everything here is set to die.” If you’re following the timeline this was the period during which Hesse was set to begin work on Steppenwolf. Which certainly makes sense.
If you’re not as invested in medieval literature or Herman Hesse as Corto Maltese - or Pratt - perhaps the stakes of The Secret Rose might seem abstruse. Early in his dream Corto encounters Klingsor, Parzifal’s antagonist (as twelfth century German poet Ulrich von Zatzkhoven helpfully explains early on), “a corrupt and impudent knight, who lives in his ‘dirty castle with his merry damsels’ … trying to subvert the principles of the knightly order of the holy grail.” Our boy Corto’s very presence acts as a subversive agent against a backdrop of highly mannered medieval dramaturgy. He’s enigmatic and ambiguous in a way that doesn’t directly map onto the allegorical order that gives rise to characters like Parzifal and Klingsor. He steps between the raindrops of their story by accepting that the moral imperatives that have applied to traditional grail quests do not apply to him: he’s just passing through, really, stopping in to pick up the grail for a friend. He doesn’t have a lot at stake.
“Don’t try to fool me with any more fairy tales,” Corto Maltese says, “you said yourself that I’m not pure like Galahad, the fearless and faultless knight … therefore I’m free to interpret the knight code in whatever way suits me best.” This kind of legalism is actually fairly accurate to the historical genre. Arthurian heroes spend a lot of time worrying about their interpretations of the chivalric code. Corto’s decision not to play the game pays dividends: the thing that gets most Arthurian heroes in trouble is desire. Every knight errant on a holy quest holds the object of their desire as an object of desire symbolizing everything and nothing under the sun, and that desire proves their undoing. As the title rose itself says (a fair amount of exposition is delivered by inanimate object): “the riddle, the enigma, the hidden meaning in a sentence … it’s all part of our game.”
But Corto Maltese is a hero from a different era and a different mode of heroic fiction. Because he’s not personally invested in questions of chivalry he find easy access to the inner sanctum of the holiest of holies. The sum of his motivation for seeking the grail and the rose, in the context of his dream, is to help his friend Klingsor and exit the dreamworld. Ironically, according to the logic of these kinds of myths, its precisely Corto’s disinterestedness that allows him to carry the day.
Grail narratives are by their very nature dissatisfying. Because Arthur’s story has a set end, the grail can never actually deliver on the promise of spiritual renewal. Because of this structural limitation most grail narratives have a bit of a shaggy dog story in them, even down to contemporary retellings with Monty Python and Indiana Jones. No one ever finds the grail and unlocks the key to renewed prosperity. Arthur always dies at the end. Corto has more luck than most because his intentions are pure, surprising no one more than himself. He wakes up and has brunch with Herman Hesse. The end.
Corto Maltese is a versatile character but The Secret Rose is an odd adventure. Instead of maritime fisticuffs and ubiquitous seagulls this book is a lot more concerned with Pratt’s study of medieval woodcuts, which may seem like playing against type for anyone expecting lots of lush spotted blacks. There’s a sketchy spontaneity to the proceedings. Many of the designs through the dream narrative are taken directly from medieval illuminated manuscripts, and so seem wonky and defiantly crude. Sometimes the book devolves into talking heads, with sketchy faces bantering back and forth on the subject of theosophy.
If like me you spent multiple years in graduate school studying medieval European literature this is a rare treat of a book that will allow you to actually get some use out of your hundreds of thousands of dollars of amassed student debt. The rest of you should enjoy it if you’re the type who likes to see Hugo Pratt draw things. Which, unlike the first thing I said, is most people.