Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Captain Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Considering the millions of copies the author has sold, it’s a bit absurd to say but, ‘Why aren’t more people reading his work?’ For me, Captain Alatriste is a unique, obvious labor of love and displays an innate gift for cinematic presentation due, no doubt, in small part to the author’s background as a war journalist.

I recall David Fulmer saying at one of his writing workshops, “Make your setting a character. The primary character. If not, it will be boring.” Like the best of advice it’s simple, but rarely adhered to. Historical fiction set in seventeenth-century Spain has been done before, but rarely—if ever—has it been done this well.

The plot is straightforward, perhaps even simplistic: an ex-soldier turned sword-for-hire discovers his conscious has limits to what it will suffer after accepting money for murder. Many of the characters feel familiar, and due to the sheer quantity of them I’d expect further development in later installments. What sets characters and events apart is the world that has shaped Madrid of the time. The setting makes characters what they are, and at times seems to define them and even force their hands. Unlike most writer’s characters the cast of Captain Alatrise couldn’t be picked up and placed in a derivative world or even Paris of the same time; they would be completely different as would the story. This is Spain as portrayed by one who loves its history and isn’t merely content to tell you about Madrid, but wants to take you there and give you a tour. There is an authentic layer of grit to this book that I don’t think I’ve encountered before with any other writer.

“When (Spain was) good, it was very good, but when bad, far worse than bad. It was the era of quixotic, sterile deeds that determined reason and right at the imperious tip of a sword."

The above is such a general statement in comparison to the minutiae of everyday life given in the novel. I’m always hesitant to quote an author’s prose in my commentary, and to do any more would be to deprive a potential reader a real treat in experiencing it for the first time. Pérez-Reverte’s prose alternates between succinct clarity, and being as florid as the naming structure of the times he is writing about, e.g. Álvaro Luis Gonzaga de la Marca y Álvarez di Sidonia, Conde de Guadalmedina. However, the writing is far from tedious; it yields credibility and style, the latter of which Pérez-Reverte has in abundance.

Most enjoyable of Pérez-Reverte’s writing is his resolution of tension. Considering the story and the characters, it would be easy to think that all points of conflict are concluded in a hackneyed, fantasy-like sword fight, but this is drama of a theatrical sort. Despite all of Pérez-Revere’s organic cinematic flair this is not the action movie-book you’ve been waiting for, rather the ass-kicking is inconsequential gravy.

There are some questions concerning the translation: clichés are occasionally used where perhaps idioms were lost; and due to the historic—archaic, by today’s standards—prose style and language, some of the word usage is either phenomenal by even Nabokov’s standards or a loose/poor approximation of what was intended by the Spanish. (Me and my modest use of the English language; I was sent reeling for a dictionary a few times.) There is also a good bit a poetry that naturally suffers from merely being translated, but not so much as to lose its meaning or not be enjoyable. I’ve been too lazy to read the Spanish text though I own it, but I may spot check a passage here and there. The book is eminently ‘readable.’

Background comfort with a romance language may impart slightly further understanding (Fray Emilio Bocanegra ‘black mouth’ and Gualterio Malatesta an Italian name meaning something akin to ‘not-right-in-the-head’ and all connotations that go with such a names) and knowing the subtle differences between ‘chevalier,’ ‘hidalgo,’ and ‘caballero’ are helpful, but the fact that this is a translated work shouldn’t scare anyone off.

Perhaps the most obvious question concerning the writing is also the easiest to overlook: the narration. Captain Diego Alatriste’s page, Iñigo, tells the events of the story at least twenty years after they happen. He was thirteen and only learning to write when the story takes place, so not even to question his recollection and memory I did wonder how he gained much of the information that was given to the reader when he was not immediately present—which Iñigo admits, was more often than not. It becomes a difficult detail to ignore as we are shown Alatriste’s taciturn nature and utter inability to brag or even mention his exploits. Iñigo has an odd place in the story; he is part of it, yet concurrently very detached. Pérez-Reverte easily diverts reader attention from this issue by way of being an exceptional story teller and the answers possibly lie in forthcoming installments.

As if I already didn’t want to keep reading…

It’s a good looking book too. The authors name, with its near symmetrical location of the letter ‘R’ through three names, hyphens and accent mark looks fabulous and even slightly exotic in print on the cover. These are the first hardback books from Putman I can recall owning. They are nothing exceptional but the little things are done well: a nice typeset, great spacing, and a unique but easy-on-the-eye font.

While it is the first book in a series, of which the first five are available in English and hopefully the others coming soon, this entry stands alone. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I’ll follow Captain Alatrise as long as Pérez-Reverte keeps writing about him. This work falls into a very particular genre: books-you-should-be-reading.

As to whether or not I’ll have commentary on the other works concerning Diego Alatriste that depends solely on Pérez-Reverte. If he merely copies the mold set down in the first installment, I doubt I’ll say anything further, but I have a feeling he won’t. It is evident that he has too much skill and creativity to rehash material. At the moment, I am more than content to find out for myself by reading the next book.


Marion Deeds said...

What a great review. I have a friend who has the DVD of the South American movie, but hasn't read the book. I think I'll refer her here to get her inspired.--Marion

Chad Hull said...

I'm sure you feel as I do: if your friend likes to read, they will find a lot to like in this book.

I'd heard of the movie but I think I'll get my book fix before seeing it.

AdamC1776 said...

A very good set of books