For the elite, Spain in the 1620s is a world of stately protocol, fine poetry and all the trappings of a great empire: the sun may be setting on Spanish dominance in the New World, but there’s still enough light to enjoy it while it lasts. Outside the insulated world of the court, however, things are very different. For the man on the street, it’s a world of living hand-to-mouth, gossip on street corners and scurrilous sonnets, where every insult is met with steel and where the appearance of gentility (bearing arms, getting good seats at the theatre) is more important than the reality. Into this roistering world of old soldiers, literary priests and jobbing poets comes young, wide-eyed Íñigo, whose mother has sent him to live with his late father’s comrade-in-arms, Captain Alatriste.
He was not the most honest or pious of men, but he was courageous. His name was Diego Alatriste y Tenorio and he had fought in the ranks during the Flemish wars. When I met him he was barely making ends meet in Madrid, hiring himself out for four maravedís in employ of little glory, often as a swordsman for those who had neither the skill nor the daring to settle their own quarrels … It is easy to criticize now, but in those days the capital of all the Spains was a place where a man had to fight for his life on a street corner lighted by the gleam of two blades.
Íñigo is naive but he’s not a fool and he rapidly comes to realise that Alatriste, for all his poverty, has a strict personal code of honour. That, as much as his dazzling skill with a blade, has earned him the friendship and patronage of notable men, like the bellicose poet don Francisco de Quevedo (‘We have no choice but to fight!‘), and the noble Conde de Guadalmedina. I get the impression that, for Pérez-Reverte, Alatriste symbolises all that is good about the Spanish character at this period: proud but not haughty, frank, stoic, loyal, discreet and, above all else, courageous. Indeed: ‘There are times when courage is all that is left… Especially in times like these, when even flags and the name of God are used to strike deals‘.
Alatriste’s present adventure begins when he is summoned to meet with two masked gentlemen, who offer him a very significant amount of money to dispose of two English gentlemen who are travelling to Madrid under assumed names. No questions asked. As if that wasn’t suspicious enough, Alatriste’s orders are muddled. One of his patrons wants the Englishmen to be only inconvenienced; the other, afterwards, demands that they should be killed. And, to make matters even worse, the Spanish Inquisition are very keen to ensure that neither of the Englishmen arrives safely. The stage is set for a crisis of morality in which Alatriste must decide which of his patrons to gratify – and his decision will make him two implacable enemies (not counting the Inquisition).
One of these is a certain Sicilian swordsman who has a fondness for dressing in black and whistling a jaunty little tune that already sends shivers down my spine whenever I read it. The other… well, let’s just say that his interests seem to be intertwined with those of the exquisitely beautiful Angélica de Alquézar, a menina at the court, who has already won poor Íñigo’s heart and will become his ‘sweetest, most dangerous and mortal enemy‘. Along the way, Alatriste must grapple with various pressing questions. Why is the Church so eager to see these Englishmen dead? What kind of idiot – even an English idiot – travels through Madrid without a guard at night? And what kind of name is ‘Steenie’ anyway?
This book tells a rollicking story in its own right and briskly sets up the pieces on the board for the rest of the series. It’s a deeply satisfying blend of good characterisation, tongue-in-cheek humour, and genuinely dastardly villains (such as the skeletal Inquisitor, Fray Emilio de Bocanegra, whose hands are ‘bony serpents slithering from the sleeves of his habit‘). Moreover there are breathtaking sword-fights, where you really do fear for the well-being of the participants. Pérez-Reverte obviously owes a huge debt to Dumas and he isn’t afraid to acknowledge it, with a deliciously cheeky reference to ‘Milady de Winter’ at one point. And, like the novels of Dumas, this is a story that tells us as much about the characters’ world as it does about their adventures. I thought that Pérez-Reverte was extremely good at suggesting the zeitgeist of the period: the disappointment and bitterness of ordinary Spaniards coupled with pride and affection for their handsome young king – a contradiction they explain away by blaming his ministers, rather than him, for the policies which have brought misery to the country.
Then there are questions about the role of the Church in politics: I found it telling that the most bloodthirsty of Alatriste’s patrons were the Inquisitor Bocanegra and the gentleman wearing the cross of the religious military order of Calatrava. Lightening the tone, and cutting across social boundaries, there are the pleasures of Spanish culture – the poems and plays of Lope, Quevedo and even, dare I say it, Góngora, which bring all of Madrid together – and the paintings of young Vélazquez, who, to my delight, had a cameo appearance on the steps of San Felice. In fact, the story feels very much like the literary equivalent of a Vélazquez painting: told in shades of brown and grey and buff, with a captivating interest in human nature. There’s only one thing which jars sometimes, and that’s the style of the narration. Everything is told in first-person by Íñigo, but he frequently becomes omniscient and tells us about scenes he didn’t witness and even about Alatriste’s inner thoughts. Occasionally this niggled, but fortunately Pérez-Reverte has such panache that he can pull it off.
Reading this with Isi and with my friend Tim, who joined us, has been a joy (you can find Isi’s review here), as Isi was able to fill me in with more information about the historical context and the various poets who crop up in the story. We’ve discussed paintings by Vélazquez, the wonderful illustrations in Isi’s edition of the book, and the Duke of Buckingham’s dress sense. I’m very much looking forward to Purity of Blood in due course!
I conclude with Íñigo, looking back: disillusioned, even bitter, but never losing his pride in his countrymen:
All of them … all are gone now. But in libraries, in books, on cavases, in churches, in palaces, streets, and plazas, those men left an indelible mark that lives on. The memory of Lope’s hand will disappear with me when I die, as will Vélazquez’s Andalusian accent, the sound of don Francisco’s golden spurs jingling as he limped along, the serene gray-green gaze of Captain Alatriste. Yet the echoes of their singular lives will resound as long as that many-faceted country, that mix of towns, tongues, histories, bloods, and betrayed dreams exists: that marvellous and tragic stage we call Spain.
Next in this series: Purity of Blood