Arturo Pérez-Reverte is probably Spain’s most successful contemporary writer, hugely popular in his home country and widely translated outside it. He is perhaps best known outside Spain for his contemporary thrillers, often involving a central motif taken from art or history. Increasingly, however, he is known for his Captain Alatriste series of swashbuckling historical novels, which have made his name in Spain and which are now becoming available in English. To my frustration, I could not see who the translator was in the edition I read, which given I thought the English persuasive and free from jarring literalisms is a shame as I would have preferred to credit them in this entry.
The Sun over Breda is the third of the Captain Alatriste novels, so in order for this entry to make sense I shall step back a bit and set the scene. Pérez-Reverte is a fan of the work of Dumas, in particular the Three Musketeers series. Captain Alatriste is his homage to that earlier sequence of works, Pérez-Reverte’s own swashbuckling hero to add to the ranks of D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis.
The series is set in Spain in the 1620s, in the reign of the rather hapless Phillip IV. Already, Spain is in decline with vast numbers of unemployed soldiers thronging the streets of Madrid and with a man’s pride and honour often being the only possessions left to him. Of utmost importance is Hidalguia, being a Hidalgo. A Hidalgo is a noble, of the lowest rank but sufficient rank to be exempt from many taxes. Many Hidalgos are dirt poor, they have nothing but their name and their honour, and those and their Hidalguia are the only bequests they have to leave their children. It is, therefore, a violent time and men are touchy and easily drawn to fatal argument.
It is also a time of great art, among Alatriste’s acquaintances is a young court artist, Diego de Velasquez, and poetry is vibrant and as much a weapon between men of honour as swords can be.
Captain Alatriste is himself an aging veteran, an honorary captain with no real rank and little employment or prospects. He is accompanied by a boy who acts as narrator, Íñigo Balboa, the framing device being that these are his memoirs of his days with the captain written when the boy has become an old man. Like the Flashman novels, Alatriste is inserted into history where he encounters and interacts with famous events and figures, and where notionally at least he is portrayed as genuinely being part of our history.
In the first two novels, we meet the major characters and Alatriste’s chilling nemesis (who plays no part in this third novel, so won’t be referred to further here). The first is an amusing and successful Dumas-esque piece of swashbuckling entertainment, hugely fun and a fitting tribute to the skill of Dumas’s original works (which I rate very highly, and which are much darker in their original literary form than many –Pérez-Reverte being an obvious exception – realise). The second examines in detail the principle of Purity of Blood, a highly political doctrine in Spain of that day under which men with any hint of Jewish blood in their background were barred from public office. With the third novel, war with the rebellious United Provinces has once again arisen, giving employment (if not generally pay) to anyone capable of bearing a musket or pike. We find Alatriste and his young narrator Íñigo fighting the Dutch and their Protestant allies, a fight that will lead inexorably to the famous siege of Breda, as immortalised by Velasquez in his masterpiece The Surrender at Breda.
Indeed, that painting is the heart of this novel. This is the novelisation of a painting, of the events leading up to it, of how that which it commemorates came to pass. The painting even exists in the novel, we are told that Velasquez took the details for it from Íñigo and near the end we meet Velasquez as he works upon it. Pérez-Reverte has a fondness for games of this sort, for placing artistic references in his works that make the external work of art a piece of his own work, taking our world into his.
Where the first two Alatriste novels were a mixture of swashbuckling vigour and historical intrigue however, this third novel is a much bleaker affair. Before reading it, I lent it to a friend who returned it with the comment that there was too little swashbuckling for his taste, and too much trench warfare. Although I enjoyed it more than he did, having now read it myself I do know what he meant. This is a grim novel. Men fight, kill and die and they do so in terrible conditions and with little meaningful reason to their sacrifices. We are in the Europe of the 30 year war, and it is a terrible place where hunger is the norm and a man’s life of no import whatsoever. This is not a novel to read for some enjoyable escapism (but then, nor is Twenty Years After, as Pérez-Reverte might well point out).
The book opens with an assault on the Dutch town of Oudkerk, we see a ruse open its gates to the Spanish troops without who fall upon it in a historic massacre, 150 men taking a town garrisoned with 700 enemy troops (according to Pérez-Reverte anyway, and since the history that I know is correctly portrayed in this novel I have every reason to believe the history I do not know is equally accurate). In what will become a theme, the Spanish forces decline to take prisoners of the enemy forces, killing all those they encounter (not all of whom may even be combatants) and sacking the town brutally. As Íñigo is at pains to point out however, this is a lawful sacking, the town was offered the chance to surrender and declined to do so and so as the custom of the day had it (a custom which harked back to Roman times originally I believe) a conquered town which had not chosen to surrender was at the mercy of those who had taken it.
Discipline in the Spanish army is brutal too, on the eve of attack some soldiers are hanged for sexual offences, so as to discourage others on the day from assaulting the women of Oudkerk (as opposed to killing all the men and stealing everything they find, including that which is nailed down). By way of comment on the need for discipline, Íñigo remarks:
“No unit and no company is perfect. Even in Christ’s, which was one he had recruited himself, there was one who betrayed him, another who denied him and yet another who failed to believe him.”
These are practical men, superstitious and religious both, but well able to put both to one side when need demands it and with little difficulty reconciling their own occupations with the religion they see themselves as promoting.
And so we continue, we see camp life under a Colonel nicknamed by his men Ropeshitter due to his fondness for hanging soldiers for any infraction however minor. We see battles, we see slow siege-work in which rival trenches are dug by each side while snipers kill any man unwise enough to put his head too high. All this is an accurate depiction of the warfare of the period, trench warfare was far from a 1914 invention. It is also, however, pretty dark stuff as men die frequently without sight of their aggressor and where more time is spent digging than actually engaging an enemy. Opportunities for glory seem few, the army is bankrupt and pay long overdue, hunger is a constant companion.
Despite all this slow toil and grind, combat is a frequent occurrence in the book, and as one might hope is skilfully described carrying an immediacy and a horror which although again not at all swashbuckling in nature nonetheless carries a real power. An excerpt here from a passage in which Íñigo, who is at this point just 14 years old, is caught in the midst of a vicious open field engagement where the force he is part of must hold the ground at all costs:
“At our backs, behind the pikes, rippled the shot-shredded crosses of St. Andrew. The Hollanders were right upon us, an avalanche of frightened or terrible eyes and blood-covered faces. Large, blond, courageous heretics were attempting to bury their pikes and halberds in us or run us through with their swords. I watched as Alatriste and Copons, shoulder to shoulder, dropped their harquebuses to the ground and unsheathed their Toledo blades, planting their feet firmly. I also watched as Dutch pikes penetrated our lines, and saw their lances wound and mutilate, twisting in bloody flesh. Diego Alatriste was slashing with sword and dagger among the long ash pikes. I grabbed one as it went by me and a Spaniard beside me plunged his sword into the neck of the Hollander holding the far end, his blood streamed down the shaft onto my hands. Now Spanish pikes were coming to our aid, approaching from behind us to attack the Dutch over our backs and through the spaces left by the dead. Everything was a labyrinth of lances and a crescendo of carnage.
I fought my way toward Alatriste, pushing through our comrades. When a Hollander cut his way through our men with his sword and fell at the captain’s feet, locking his arm around his legs with the intention of pulling him down as well, I gave a loud shout, pulled out my dagger and sprang toward him, determined to defend my master, even if I was cut to pieces in the process. Blinded by my madness, I fell upon the heretic, flattened my hand over his face and pressed his head to the ground. Alatriste kicked and pulled to be free of him and twice plunged his sword into the man’s body from above. The Hollander rolled over but was not willing to give up the ghost. He was a hearty man but he was bleeding from his mouth and nose like a Jarama bull at the end of a corrida. I can remember the sticky feel of his blood – red and streaked with gunpowder – and the dirt and blond stubble on his white, freckled faced. He fought me, unresigned to dying, whoreson that he was, and I fought him back. Still holding him down with my left hand, I tightened my grip on the dagger in my right and stabbed him three times in the ribs, but I was so close to his chest that all three attempts slid across the leather buffcoat protecting his torso. He felt the blows, for I saw his eyes open wide, and at last he released my master’s legs in order to protect his face, as if he were afraid I would wound him there. He moaned. I was blinded by fear and fury, deranged by this mongrel, who so obstinately refused to die. I stuck the tip of my dagger between the fastenings of his buffcoat. ‘Neee. …Srinden. …Nee,’ the heretic murmured, and I pressed down with all the weight of my body. In less than an Ave Maria he spat up one last vomit of blood, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he lay as still as if he had never had life.”
Now, there is much in that prose one could criticise were one minded to, phrases such as “give up the ghost” are clichéd and the language is in many ways quite workmanlike, but as a description of a horrific battle to the death culminating in a boy taking a man’s life with his dagger as they grapple in dirt and filth, I find it very effective and I am not persuaded that more sophisticated prose would actually improve the passage. The very flatness of the text, the matter of fact descriptions and the quotidianity of the language, each add to the horror and to the impression that what is happening no matter how terrible is in fact no more than a job of work for these individuals.
Later, on a battle turning irrevocably in their favour, the Spaniards go into a revel of killing, chasing the enemy as they flee and cutting them down without mercy. Again, they do not take surrenders, those they catch, they kill. They rob corpses, they slaughter men who have hands raised in surrender and who are pleading for mercy, when a group retreats into a farmhouse they burn it down and kill all who emerge. They kill until the Spanish fury (a phrase of the time) deserts them and they collapse in sheer exhaustion. This is not a war of duels and gentlemen (though more on that later, for some of it is), it is carnage and butchery in which the sheer relief of being alive is expressed more often than not in the killing of others.
In between battles, soldiers manage to offend each other to the point of fighting duels to the death, a rebellion over backpay arises (but not before a town is taken, the troops pride themselves on only rebelling after victories so that none can accuse them of cowardice), a tyrant commander takes vicious pleasure in hanging his own men, the book despite it’s relatively short length (partly disguised by needlessly wide spacing in the Phoenix edition I read) contains much incident. We see the lives of the men at camp as well as at battle, but life at camp is a prelude to battle and the book’s most memorable sequences tend in the main to be in its battles.
As the siege continues, Alatriste and others are sent into tunnels to intercept Dutch counter-tunnels (or possibly Dutch counter-counter tunnels, it was common practice for each side to undermine the other’s works). In an unrelenting seven page sequence Alatriste and a small number of others crawl through narrow and unstable passages to intercept the Dutch, on encountering them they fight in darkness and in the knowledge that once again neither side will be taking prisoners and that surrender is simply a means of hastening your own execution. Using sharpened digging tools as weapons, they butcher the Dutch, feeling for them in darkness. They then must flee (crawling on their bellies all the while) when the Dutch outside the immediate attack flood the tunnels with poisonous sulphur in a bid to kill the Spaniards, even if they kill their own in the process. This is not portrayed as anything noble, it is killing as a chore, as a task which must be performed but in which no great pleasure is taken. Killing, like digging, is simply another job for the tired and hungry Spanish soldier to accomplish, and there is no greater moral weight to one action than there is to the other.
I mentioned above this not being a war for gentleman, and yet as the book shows us some absurd fragments of what passes for chivalry remain. At one point the Dutch besieged in Breda send out a challenge, five Protestant men will fight five Spaniards. Nothing hangs on this, the Dutch will not surrender if they lose nor the Spaniards depart if they should fail. It is simply a matter of honour, a further pointless piece of butchery under the guise of gentlemanly conduct.
The duel itself is briefly described:
“Don Luis de Bobadilla, the younger of the two guzmanes, went down with the first shots, while the others closed in on each other with great energy and deadly intent. One of the Dutchmen was felled by a pistol shot that broke his neck, and another of his companions, the Scot, was wounded in the torso, run through by the sword of Pedro Martin, who lost it there. Finding himself with no sword and two discharged pistols, he was then knifed in the throat and chest, falling upon the man he had just killed. As for Don Carlos del Arco, he engaged the Frenchman so skilfully that, between thrust and counter thrust, he was able to aim a shot at his face, though he then withdrew from the fight, hobbled by a wicked wound to his thigh. Minaya finished off the Frenchman with Captain Alatriste’s pistol and badly wounded the second Dutchman with his own, emerging without a scratch himself. And Egiluz, his left hand crippled by a musket ball but with his sword in his right, dealt to clean blows to the last of their opponents, one on an arm and the other to the flank. The heretic, seeing himself wounded and alone, resolved, like Antigone, not to flee exactly, but to fall back and check his resources. The three Spaniards still standing relieved their adversaries of their weapons and their bands, which were orange, according to the custom of those who served the Estates General. They would even have carried the bodies of Bobadilla and Martin to our lines had the Dutch, furious at the outcome, not consoled themselves over their defeat with a hailstorm of musket balls. Our men, therefore, were slowly quitting the field when a musketeer’s lead struck Egiluz in the kidneys, and although, helped by his companions, he reached the trenches, he died three days later. As for the seven bodies, they lay on open ground almost all day, until there was a brief truce at dusk and each side was able to recover its own.”
Thus goes chivalry in 1625.
Again, the prose is workmanlike rather than refined, and Pérez-Reverte shows a great fondness for commas, but given the narrative is supposed to be that of a retired soldier looking back, and given the intent is to portray the events of the day as in a picture, for me, it works well and I think the style of language well suited to the effect Pérez-Reverte seeks to achieve.
Battles and bloodshed continues, culminating in a twelve page depiction of a vicious battle in which the Spanish are overrun and fight near to the last man to prevent their banner falling into enemy hands and so dishonouring their tercio (a body of men of the time). Preferring to die defending their honour than to die fleeing, and knowing that as so often in this novel surrender will not be accepted, for twelve pages men fight and die in a welter of fatigued savagery as bullets run out long before the advancing enemy are depleted.
“’This is the end,’ said Pablo Olivares.
We looked at one another, undecided, hearing the cries of the English drawing closer up the slope. Their clamour was making me quake with terror, a bottomless despair. We had less time left than it takes to recite the Credo, and no options but the enemy or the swamp.[Note, earlier in the novel they themselves slaughtered men who fled to a swamp.] Some men started drawing their swords.
‘The standard,’ said Alatriste.
Several looked at him as if they did not understand his words. Others, Copons first among them, went and stood by the Captain.
‘He’s right,’ said Mendieta, ‘better with the standard’.
I knew what he meant. Better out there with the standard, fighting around it, than here behind the gabions, cornered like rabbits. I know longer felt any fear, only a deep and ancient weariness, and a wish to finish this thing.”
Once again we have the same refrains as earlier, fatigue, desperation, an utter lack of meaningful choice before the protagonists. Religion as a constant source of reference (Christ’s company, in less than an Ave Maria, less time left than it takes to recite the Credo), but a source of seemingly no comfort at all. Death is a matter of duty and obligation, the death of others and one’s own.
So, overall a grim and fairly unrelenting work. One in which war is portrayed as bloody and brutal, with Pérez-Reverte intentionally setting the whole of the novel in the smoky ruin that merely forms an element of backdrop to Velasquez’s masterpiece. Here orders are not explained, men are sent on missions from which there is little meaningful prospect of return (and many do not return), life is fragile and very fleeting but these are not men who by virtue of that fact hold it all the more precious. Rather, they are hardened, accustomed to death, it is not in the end a matter of great importance to them. It is certainly of far less importance than their honour.
A final quote, before some final thoughts, a comment by Íñigo on the nature of the Spanish troops:
“…despised, cruel, arrogant Spaniards disciplined only when under fire, who suffered everything in any assault but would allow no man to raise his voice to them.”
On the matter of final thoughts, as that last quote shows, this is a novel with an ambiguous relationship to its subject matter. It is hard on reading it not to feel a pride on Pérez-Reverte’s part in these men and in what they, and Spain, achieved. Again, like Flashman and George MacDonald Fraser, although much is condemned and much held up as idiocy, there is a feeling that the Empire is seen as something glorious and the sacrifices made for it perhaps at some level worthwhile. As in MacDonald Fraser, war is a terrible and bloody business, but the men who fight it are glorious despite the utter lack of any glory. It is, as I say, an ambiguous attitude to the source material but it is an ambiguity which I think MacDonald Fraser also shares and is perhaps unavoidable in writing of such terrible events in which such surprising courage was sometimes displayed.
Pérez-Reverte also plays a number of games with the reader, poems are included in the back which may or may not be historical (some clearly are not since they reference Alatriste himself, some it is not so clear – to me at any rate). He includes an essay on why although Alatriste is said to be in the Velasquez painting he cannot be seen in it today, he recovers excerpts which he claims were deleted from a play of the period and which when reinserted into it refer to Alatriste’s exploits. He maintains the fiction of Alatriste’s reality, and once again the comparison with MacDonald Fraser seems apt.
Do I recommend this novel? It’s hard to say. My friend was right, it is short on swashbuckling and long on trench warfare. It makes for a surprisingly grim read, and is by no means the light hearted romp the (rather glorious) cover portrays it as. For all that, as an evocation of the experience of war in the early 17th Century it succeeds amply and as a work of historical fiction it certainly has its rewards. I do hope, however, that the next instalment sees a return to Madrid, intrigue and a little romance and humour placed back in to the mix.