Arturo Pérez-Reverte

 

Captain Alatriste

 

Having relished some of his other novels I was looking forward to an intelligent, historically rich tale, spiced with Dumas style swordplay. That is still there, indeed, there is almost too much of the musketeer about our borderline brigand soldier who under pressure is more driven by his code of honour than his sense of self-preservation. My lasting impression, however, is feeling a bit overwhelmed by the Spanish jingoism that permeates the story. As an Australian it reminded me of some painful local historical novels that are at pains to glorify some salt of the earth (somewhat mythical) archetypical Australian. Here Pérez-Reverte seems to just get a bit too excited gushing about how, for example, the Spanish people love a grand gesture over sober government. Sure it's possible to make some perceptive observations about distinctives within cultures, but I just don't subscribe to these sorts of nationalistic generalisations. I wonder if Arturo, who rose to acclaim by writing good novels incorporating his love of history, has now been feted and adopted by various parochial bodies and self-consciously wants to write `Spanish' novels.

Don't get me wrong, Pérez-Reverte has some skills and does some research. I'm not sure these days, however, that he has an editor. There were pleasures in this book, but the narrator, for example, is given too much leeway in bemoaning the tragic decline of the glorious Spanish Empire. Tragic, of course, is a matter of perspective: one kingdom's loss is another's gain. Personally, whether this particular bunch of privileged aristocrats who happened to be born in one part of Europe saw greater success than their counterparts born a thousand miles north, south, east or west fails to stir me. That isn't to say I'm not interested in history - there are fascinating people and events ranging from inspiring to despicable. However birthplace is not a valid predictor of character: nationalism then and now is an at best myopic, at worst pestilential, doctrine. [More insightfully, Pérez-Reverte is clearly overcompensating for a national football team that constantly promises far more than it delivers. I mean, what was Deco thinking with that tackle; and don't even get me started on Figo: how pathetic that the World Cup 2006 may be chiefly distinguished by retiring legends (not only Spanish) displaying toddler tantrums. `The Beautiful Game': hah. Actually, now I think of it these are two examples of a `grand' (read: stupid) gesture over sober government. The decline of the glorious Spanish Empire is the merest football metaphor.]

Am I foolishly berating the author for the opinions he's given a character which may have no resemblance to his own? Perhaps, but either way it does get to be a bit of a bore. Speaking of which, please, not another Milady de Winter. Sure, `The Fencing Master' was an absolute triumph, but Pérez-Reverte himself seems aware of the inevitability of this character, spelling it all out with introductory statements along the lines of, "Little did I realise the malice such beauty concealed...". Likewise the clichéd priest/master-villain who might have stepped off a James Bond set, or, to quote my favourite description of this style of derivative baddie, "might as well have been called Snidely Whiplash and twirled his handlebar moustache" (kudos to Tony Hines).

The quality of his other books mean this isn't enough to put me off the author entirely, but it's concerning that this hopeful aberration appears to be the first of a planned series. Failing strong recommendations from people I trust, I doubt I'll be spending any more time with the Captain.

 

November 2006