Purity of Blood: Arturo Pérez-Reverte

★★★½

The Adventures of Captain Alatriste: Book II

In the second book in Pérez-Reverte’s swashbuckling series, we rejoin the eponymous captain and his page Íñigo shortly after the adventure of the two Englishmen recounted in Captain Alatriste. Life has returned to its normal rhythm and the captain is contemplating a return to active service in Flanders; but an encounter with their old friend, the poet don Francisco de Quevedo, raises the prospect of work to be done in Madrid.

Don Francisco has been made aware of a shocking case: a young girl, the daughter of a friend, has been placed in a nunnery where she is at the mercy of the convent’s lecherous chaplain. Her father and brothers, becoming aware of her situation, have begged don Francisco to help them carry her away and, in turn, the poet comes to Alatriste: the only man he can trust to assist him in such a delicate and dangerous mission. And it truly is dangerous, because the penalty for breaking into a convent (if caught) is death. Moreover, in taking on the commission, Alatriste will be entangling himself with a family whose blood carries the taint of converso blood – no small matter in Golden-Age Spain, where purity of blood is a prerequisite for social rank and high position.

What neither Alatriste nor Íñigo realises, until it’s too late, is that they are merely pawns in a much larger game and that their involvement in don Francisco’s charitable cause will end with Íñigo in the clutches of the most terrifying and cruellest organisation in the Catholic world: the Spanish Inquisition.

I would have followed Captain Alatriste to the Gates of Hell at one word, one gesture, one smile. I was far from suspecting that that was precisely where he was leading me.

As ever, Pérez-Reverte conjures up a fast-paced romp which manages to combine an old-fashioned matinee charm with elegant melancholy. Here are all the conventions of swashbuckling: men in black in wide-brimmed hats; twirled moustaches; duels on street corners with a rapier in one hand and a cloak in the other; exclamations of ‘Sblood!; and the untrustworthy but irresistible femme fatale. Speaking of the latter, Angélica de Alquézar may still be young but she could already give Milady a run for her money: when poor, innocent Íñigo declares that he would die for her, we get the feeling that what excites her is not the passion of the oath, but the possibility of his death.

And, if we’re going to speak of villains, I can’t help mentioning another classic baddie whom I was delighted to see make a return. Pérez-Reverte has created the best kind of villain in Gualterio Malatesta, the Sicilian sellsword who is Alatriste’s nemesis, all the more hated because he and the captain merely represent opposite sides of the same coin. All the best antagonists are worthy antagonists, and I sense that between Alatriste and Malatesta there is that most satisfying of dramatic relationships, in which hatred is matched by a twisted kind of respect. I have to say that I’m rather fond of Malatesta and I love the fact that Pérez-Reverte doesn’t even need to introduce him by name any more. All we need is his little whistled catchphrase to know who it is:

But, could that be music? A kind of ti-ri-tu, ta-ta from someone whistling behind me. The sound turned me to ice, and my fingers, sticky with the blood of Luis de la Cruz, tightened on his dagger grip. I turned very slowly, holding the dagger high, and as I did, moonlight glanced from the blade. At the far end of the low stone wall was a familiar shape: a dark silhouette cloaked in a cape and a black wide-brimmed hat. Recognizing who it was, I knew that the trap was lethal, and that I had sprung it.

Beneath these swashbuckling cliches, however, is the thing which gives Pérez-Reverte’s series its distinctive quality: the blend of national pride and regret which infuses the book through the meditations of the narrator, the older Íñigo. This is a world where individual men are held worthy of respect and admiration, but the institutions of the monarchy and the church have become rotten from within. The very things that once made the Spanish proud of their country are now decaying before their eyes. Pérez-Reverte suggests an even wider corruption of morality: the crowds are just as thick and just as enthusiastic for the slaughter of the auto-da-fe at the end of the book as they are for the blood of the bullfight at the beginning.

And yet Alatriste, Íñigo and their friends contain to hold faith in the abstract, glorified idea of Spain even as her reality proves to be less than inspirational. It is this distinction between what is eternal (and worth fighting for) and what is real (and best overlooked) which gives Alatriste’s patriotism its poignancy. In this instalment of the story, the possibility of the captain’s return to Flanders always hovers in the background. Disillusioned by the political scrabbling in Madrid, he turns his face to the brutal honesty of the battlefield. But is it worth it, to put his life on the line for a country that cares little for him in return? Or does that very question lessen a man? As Alatriste’s friend, the constable Martín Saldaña, observes at one point:

‘But it may be true… that this century no longer deserves men like us. I am referring to the men we once were.’ …
‘It may be,’ the captain murmured, ‘that we do not deserve them either.’

Another thing I enjoy about these books is the way that Pérez-Reverte casually weaves his fictional world into history and into more established fiction – for example, in the last book we saw how he casually referenced Milady de Winter in a nod to Dumas. In this novel, there is a passing reference to Alatriste’s mother’s great-uncle, who inspired a play by Tirso and who, it transpires, was the original Don Juan. It’s rather delicious how casually Pérez-Reverte drops that in. Similarly, he once again refers in a rather offhand way to Velázquez’s portrait of Angélica de Alquézar which, if I didn’t know better, would have sent me off eagerly to search through my art books.

His novels are infused with this innate understanding of his period and that means that they’re not only deeply satisfying as adventure novels, but also possess a thoroughly convincing ring of truth. They aren’t always perfect: the narrative structure means that we never really have to fear for Íñigo, because we know that he is telling us this story as a much older man; nor, thanks to the many references to ‘later’, do we ever really believe that any harm will come to Alatriste. Pérez-Reverte also continues with the slightly uneven shift between Íñigo’s limited first-person perspective and occasional omniscient first-person scenes in which Íñigo tells us what Alatriste is doing and feeling, even though he isn’t even there. These jar on me sometimes, but the book as a whole is such fun that I can let them pass.

Once again, I read this as a joint reading with Isi, who has already posted her review, which you can find here. I had a great time, even though I was unfortunately slightly distracted (the last week has been rather busy), and I felt obliged to explain to Isi why it can be difficult for the English to take the Spanish Inquisition seriously. It’s all down to Monty Python and if you don’t already know the sketch, you can watch it here and I freely confess it’s very odd humour. Ahem. I’m thoroughly looking forward to tackling the next book in this series in due course and, if anyone else would like to join us at any point, just send either me or Isi an email and we’d be thrilled to have you along for the ride.

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4 thoughts on “Purity of Blood: Arturo Pérez-Reverte

  1. Isi says:

    Ohh Leander, your review is wonderful (you know, like the Queen's writing), same as always.

    Even though we know the fate of the main characters, Íñigo and Alatriste, Pérez Reverte is able to keep you thrilled all over the story. I think we have in this book the last glimpse of the capital of a dying country, and then we will witnes “the final”.
    Regarding Malatesta, I tremble everytime I imagine his whistle coming in the shadows of a narrow street.

    I'm very glad we are reading the series together!

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Ha ha – thank you Isi! Your company has been splendid; and, this time round, you've been very patient with me as I've had so much on.

    I hope we haven't seen the last of Madrid… perhaps we will come back in a future instalment of the series? Even so I'm looking forward to seeing a bit more of the Spanish Empire. When we finally get round to watching the film, I can't wait to see what they do with Malatesta – and I can't wait to actually hear what the famous whistle is meant to sound like!!!

  3. Isi says:

    It's a shame, but I really don't remember Malatesta in the film (I only saw it once, in the cinema), so I'm also keen to know the actors and how they look – and sound – like 😀

    And I didn't have to be patient, don't worry! It's a pleasure, and I undestand you are busy!

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