Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Capt. Alatriste Novels of Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Like most aesthetes, your correspondent is slavishly addicted to novels of swashbuckling romance.  A good swashbuckler has a tremendous sense of style, is written with élan and thrives on a heightened sense of drama, emotion and plot.

So, it’s natural that many people have pushed on me the historical romances of Arturo Pérez-Reverte, author of several novels about solider and swordsman-for-hire Captain Diego Alatriste y Tenorio, and his young companion, Íñigo Balboa y Aguirre.  With these novels, Pérez-Reverte clearly shows his ambition to create a series that rivals the D’Artagnan romances of Alexandre Dumas.

Pérez-Reverte (born 1951), author of the excellent The Fencing Master already covered in these pages, has set a laudable goal for himself with these books.  The author admits to being horrified at the lack of depth in the coverage of Span’s Golden Age in contemporary schools, and sought to correct this with a series of historical romances that fully detail the glory that was Spain.

However, it is his very ambition that sinks the Alatriste novels, as Pérez-Reverte forgets the romancer’s pledge to recreate history, rather than teach it.  I have just finished the fourth in the corpus (The King’s Gold), and, at this point, despite my devotion to the genre, could not possibly go back for a fifth (or seventh, as that is where the novels now stand with no sign of letting up) helping.

Pérez-Reverte does not wear his erudition lightly, and the novels stop regularly for Alatriste or one of the supporting characters (often real-life historical personages) to rattle off long bits of poetry, historical detail or antiquated epigrams and aphorisms.  This is amusing in small bits, but page after page is rather like a historical romance written by a Spanish Charlie Chan – very little goes a long way indeed.

Moreover, the great masters of the form (talents as diverse as Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rafael Sabatini) had a wonderful flair for intricate plotting.  Indeed, one of the deep joys of swashbuckling romance is its complexity of plot, almost for its own sake.  That love of plot is usually married to a depth of emotion – not just love, but hate, lust, the thirst for revenge, envy and self-respect.  However, the Alatriste novels never deliver this density of plot; indeed, they have more the plodding feel of 17th Century police procedurals, where Alatriste and Íñigo make a bloody path from point A to point B. 

Missing, too, is that sense of style, that distinct touch of panache so essential to the genre.  Perhaps this is because Alatriste is a taciturn battle-weary survivor, or that Íñigo, our narrator, is too young for such embroideries.  But this ennui prevents the books from ever really taking off – they cannot inhabit the more expansive corners of our imagination because they have no appeal to our sense of fun.

It is often with the supporting characters – the various aides, schemers and villains – that the author of romances truly shines, and here, too, Pérez-Reverte fails.  The recurring villain of the piece, Gualterio Malatesta, an Italian fencing master, is clearly the Basil Rathbone part.  However, like Alatriste, he never really comes to life – we know he’s the villain because he gets to sneer quite a bit, but there is never that passion for naughtiness, that sheer delight in vileness, that essential theatricality, that marks a great swashbuckling heavy.  Angélica de Alquézar, who spends most of her time in the books alternately trying to seduce or murder Íñigo, is weak tea indeed, never becoming more than a pale shadow of Dumas’ Milady de Winter, her most obvious influence.  Historical figures, such as Francisco de Quevedo (1580–1645), come off more like name dropping than fully rounded characters, a trick Dumas, for example, admirably pulled off with Cardinal Richelieu.

Part of the problem may be inherent in the series itself – because they are set in Spain of the 17th Century, the Alatriste novels cannot help but escape a whiff of provincialism.  While most European nations at the time were unified under one strong ruler, Spain was in essence broken up under various feudal lords who served the King.  In addition, both royalty and the Catholic Church used religion to keep the people pliable, ignorant and afraid.  Spain simply had not the expansive, intellectually exploratory or cohesive feel of England or France at that time. 

I must confess that the shortcomings of 17th Century Spain detailed in The King’s Gold inspired extremely uncomfortable comparisons to the present-day United States as I read the novel.  Here’s a passage that I found disconcertingly familiar:

Most political activity, therefore, consisted in a constant to-and-fro of haggling, usually over money; and all the subsequent crises that we endured under Philip IV – the Medina Sidonia plot in Andalusia, the Duque de Hijar’s conspiracy in Aragon, the secession of Portugal, and the Catalonia War – were created by two things: the royal treasury’s greed and a reluctance on the part of the nobility, the clerics, and the great local merchants to pay anything at all.  The sole object of the king’s visit to Seville in sixteen twenty-four and of this present visit was to crush local opposition to a vote in favor of new taxes.  The sole obsession of that unhappy Spain was money, which is why the route to the Indies was so crucial.  To demonstrate how little this had to do with justice or decency, suffice it to say that two or three years earlier, the Cortes had rejected outright a luxury tax that was to be levied on sinecures, gratuities, pensions, and rents – that is to say, on the rich.  The Venetian ambassador, Contarini, was, alas quite right when he wrote at the time, “The most effective war one can wage on the Spanish is to leave them to be devoured and destroyed by their own bad governance.”

Perhaps my overarching problem with the Alatriste novels is that their setting – 17th Century Spain – has too, too many similarities with the worst components of 21st Century American life: an exploitive over-class, unquestioning religious devotion, a hawkish international stance and the crippling provincialism of many of its people.  Hardly my recipe for romance.

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