Some notes on the three reviews.
The one from The Times is quite good:
The King's Gold, however, as its defiantly run-of-the-mill title suggests, has no pretensions to be intellectual
), and its plot
- the covert capture of a treasure ship from the Indies
- is hardly more out of the ordinary than its title.
Pérez-Reverte's real interest is less in the cloak-and-dagger stuff than in the historical period.
This is correct, but I feel he means
'hardly out of the ordinary' in a bad way.
One of the things that attentive readers will discover as they go through the saga is that most of the action is in fact quite low-key, which makes the label of
'swash-buckling' quite inappropriate for the Alatriste books.
And lazy, really.
It seems that anything set in these two or three centuries will be called that as a matter of fact no matter what.
Taking away book 3, which is a proper war book with big set-pieces
, and parts of book 6, also quite bloody with its sail-and-raid story, in the rest of the volumes there aren't many fabulous deeds.
Why, in book 1 the two Englishmen don't even get killed!
So, in this book 4, there is only one thing to do, to take care of the matter of the king's gold, and surprise surprise, that's what the book is about, BUT, as the reviewer shrewdly notes, it is not the best part of the book.
Sevilla is probably Pérez-Reverte's favourite city, he knows it inside out, in several centuries, and he succeeds brilliantly at letting us know how it was then: one of the largest cities in the world at that time, the richest port bar none, particularly on fleet-arrival day, and therefore one of the most dangerous places you can find yourself in.
Even with an expert and able guide like Alatriste by your side, you feel as uneasy as
If Alatriste was to stray away for a moment and left you alone, you'd panic instantly.
Captain Alatriste and his immediate comrades are, of course, not only seasoned toughs and brilliant swordsmen, but are also sensitive and decent men, so much so that, rather than torture a man to obtain information, the captain prefers to terrify him with a recital of what he might do and then burns his own arm to show what he is capable of.
This is most people's favourite scene from the whole saga, or if not, it's for sure in the top 3.
And it's a testament to Pérez-Reverte's skill in character building that it fits perfectly, that it enhances the character, and that it is believable when it could have been something to roll your eyes at.
By the time you read it, four books in, you can go
'oh yes, that's Alatriste all right' and at he same time be awed by him and wowed by the scene itself.
The scene was filmed for the movie, but it was so blandly done, as you can see if you have a copy of the double-disc Spanish edition, that it was pulled from the final cut.
Director Agustín Díaz Yanes was for leaving it in anyway, but Pérez-Reverte and producer
Íñigo Marco talked him out of it.
The actor playing Jerónimo Garaffa looks as if he's witnessing a magic trick rather than wetting himself with fear.
Which was the right thing to do.
And yes, the whole point is showing how Alatriste is a decent man.
He doesn't want to torture anyone, but that doesn't stop him from non-decent behaviour at other times.
If it were not that this novel was first published in Spain eight years ago, one might almost take it to be a shot across the bows of post-Iraq America.
Funny he should say that, as Viggo also made this comment.
OK, I understand the finish-with-a-sententious-remark approach, but I think it is misplaced.
None of the novels are long or even crammed with action.
Things happen all the time, but they're not hurried, they take their time.
For example, they take more than a whole chapter to get from the port to the ship.
Because that's what happens.
Because Pérez-Reverte knows from experience that in life there are not fades to black that will save you the trek, and that in those dead-time moments other things can happen.
You observe your comrades.
You have time to think about what you're doing, or should be
(or not) doing.
You even make decisions in those moments, or see things clearly, or find meaning and purpose to your actions.
There is much more inner life in this saga than most reviewers give it credit for.
About the banal dialogue, well, Alatriste is never going to be an orator.
Maybe we've grown too used to briliant scripts in cinema when a nurse, a policeman or a taxi driver can deliver perfect lines full of meaning in impeccable timing.
But life is not like that.
The one from the Daily Telegraph is short and basically useless.
Alatriste begins an Alexandre Dumas-meets-'The Magnificent Seven' recruiting drive in Seville, where professional killers are ten-a-peso.
Are there mariachi bands as well? Do they yell
The joke can go too far, as one digression reveals Alatriste won't die for 17 years.
So much for tension.
Well, there must be a reason why this guy has a job at a leading newspaper.
But it's not on the strength of reviews like this.
Alatriste's death has been known for a while in the series already, mate.
What, you thought the hero giving name to the series was gonna croak so easily? So much for attention.
The one from The Guardian/Observer raises some interesting points:
The convention seems to be that
Íñigo is looking back on these events from maturity or even old age, which has a marked distancing effect on the story.
Íñigo's past, which certainly muffles any possible vividness.
) In a couple of scenes, though, Iñigo's point of view lapses and we see Alatriste direct.
This is formally problematic
(how do these scenes pop up in a memoir of Iñigo's?) and dangerous in genre terms.
I have seen this debated in college lectures, and it has a lot of meat to it.
Yes, how does
Íñigo know what Alatriste is up to when they're not together, and even more, how does he know what Alatriste thinks? The explanation is very simple:
Íñigo is writing these stories as an old man, and includes there, for the sake of chronology, what happened to the two of them, both what he witnessed and what he guessed.
He just takes that licence.
He is not just a witness relating his tale in a judicial manner; he gives colour to what he sees, and that extends to Alatriste's thoughts.
'Cop out!', some yell.
'Bad technique!', say others.
'Amateur!' cry a few.
Well, I'm personally happy with the explanation, but I also reckon that the charge can't be completely ignored.
I think that simply Pérez-Reverte wasn't going to let technique and literary constraints spoil the fun of good tale-telling.
If it works that we see and hear Alatriste, and that we even hear him think, then he does it.
If that's what the story needs, let's throw all the other rules out of the window.
Reader interest comes first.
How tiresome would it be having to explain how
Íñigo came to know what happened to the captain on what night? And about Alatriste's thoughts, what, is he going to sit by the fire one day and pour his heart out to the lad so that he can write about it later? Now THAT would be out of character.
Very easily done, very understandable too, but that would be the real cop-out.
Alatriste talks? A lot? C'mon.
Besides, Pérez-Reverte has an illustrious precedent in none other than Francisco de Quevedo himself.
In one of his books, supposedly narrated in first person by the protagonist, he tells us how a group of people plot against him somewhere else.
He even knows in which street corner in Madrid this happens.
'amateur' at him.
And do it with a sword in your hand if you dare.
Sometimes flashback and flash-forward jostle each other on the same page.
So one moment Iñigo may stray from the novel's time-frame by mentioning, apropos of the King's guard,
'Little did we imagine that many years later I myself would wear that uniform', and the next he's off in the other direction:
'I couldn't help but shudder when I remembered poor Elvira de la Cruz and how close I too had come to being burnt at the stake.
' In this novel of action and adventure, it can seem that it's always derring-do yesterday and derring-do tomorrow, never derring-do today.
The pure drug of narrative is too often cut with the talcum powder of historical précis or the horse-tranquilliser of philosophical reflection.
Well, they do their derring today too, if you wait until the end of the book.
One just doesn't jump happily on the deck of a ship full of gold, ahoy, matey.
It takes preparation.
But just as it happens in real life, what you do now is mixed with your past in your head.
And if you write from the future, a further layer of remembrance is added
, so when you tell a story you end up with what you did, what you thought at the time and what you think about it now.
I think it's brilliant, daring, plausible and nuanced.
If you took that away, you'd be left with a linear, uninteresting, pure
(in the bad sense of the word) plot.
No character construction, no depth.
How often has this been criticised? Cardboard characters.
Yet, when fleshing-out is attempted, like in here, it is treated as a bore.
Don't worry, we will see the chase, but we won't just cut to it.
In the boy's hero-worshipping eyes, Alatriste is a cynic who never does a mean thing
- at one stage going so far as to torture himself in order to frighten a suspect into telling all he knows.
Seen directly, he's a frankly preposterous figure, fighting with a
'clear-sighted indifference' which seems to have more to do with Zen martial-arts films than with anything a 17th-century swordsman might actually feel.
We know that's not true.
Alatriste, yes, is a hero to
Íñigo, but he does do mean things,
Íñigo knows about them, knows they're mean and he tells us that much.
Sometimes he just leaves the reader to interpret what happens and a very few times he gives his opinion.
That, again, is nuance.
Yes, he worships Alatriste.
No, he's not fooled by him.
About what a 17th-century swordsman might feel, the reviewer's guess is as good as Pérez-Reverte's, but the character is only the latter's.
He built it like that, fleshed him out, and yes, I come from the same area as him and Alatriste's character is predominant there.
It's only preposterous if you come with preconceptions about bullfighting and other clichés.
Besides, Pérez-Reverte has known actual contract killers in many countries and of many backgrounds, and knows that the succesful ones are the ones who know when to keep quiet.
Arturo Pérez-Reverte was a war correspondent before he started to write novels, but there is remarkably little realism on show here.
He indulges himself with literary references, quoting from Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina, even going so far as to make poet Francisco de Quevedo
(despite his club foot, short-sightedness and overweight) into a comrade in arms for his heroes.
You can tell the reviewer is straying from what he knows about the History of the time.
People of the time quoted poets at each other like today we might be able to sing dozens of rock or pop songs off the top of our heads.
In fact, it would be even ahistorical if
Íñigo wasn't able to remember any verses from his period.
He was a son of his time, and besides, he can read and does like it.
It is realistic.
The Golden Century writers are rightly esteemed because they took literature from the courts and gave it to the public.
They were phenomenally successful among the people, and if most weren't rich it was because most people couldn't read and therefore did not buy their books.
But everyone knew Quevedo's or Lope's new verses as soon as they were out, and they circulated in unofficial manuscript copies within hours
- see, piracy issues and all.
And about Quevedo's sword-fighting, well, he once beat the king's fencing master in a public show of arms to settle a disagreement on swordplay technique.
It is well documented and it was big gossip at the time.
I understand that a reviewer cannot know everything about everybody, but this episode is an homage to Quevedo, who described an execution of his own time in almost the exact words.
In fact, Quevedo himself is seen in Pérez-Reverte's book telling
Íñigo that he was eager to see the execution because he was writing a book about a low-life criminal.
So this is the game Pérez-reverte wants us to play: to see who remembers this passage from Quevedo's book and link it to his novel.
These are the kinds of level of meaning I mentioned before which are lost on many people, in particular abroad.
Plus, a hood, doesn't have to cover the whole face.