Category Archives: Spanish Literature

This was the magic spell the punks had cast on her: they made her believe the world could be renewed.

The Proof, by Cesar Aira and translated by Nick Caistor

‘Wannafuck?’

When I read The Proof I enjoyed it but initially found it a little slight. I admired its energy and clarity even if I couldn’t quite see what the point of it was.

I’m now a month or two on and the surprise has been how sharp and bright The Proof has remained in memory. I find myself wanting to read more like it, even though I’m not quite sure what “like it” would look like.

Love that cover.

The book opens with the single compound word I opened this review with – ‘wannafuck?’ It’s an instant shock to the reader. It stops you in your tracks.

It doesn’t quite stop Marcia, the teenage girl it’s directed to, because it takes her a moment to realise she’s its target. She’s an ordinary girl, conventional even, and that kind of greeting is entirely beyond her experience.

Marcia was blonde, small, chubby, somewhere between child and adult. She was wearing a woollen skirt and a thick blue pullover, with lace-up shoes. Her face was flushed from her walk, but it was always ruddy anyway.

She looks around and sees who called out to her:

They were two punks, dressed in black. Very young, although maybe slightly older than she was, with pale, childish features.

The punks call themselves Mao and Lenin, and it was Mao who called out to Marcia. Mao insists the offer is quite serious and that she’s in love with Marcia on first sight. Marcia isn’t interested but the conversation continues and the three girls head off down the street together.

They go to a café where Marcia tries to understand what it’s like to be a punk. The question doesn’t interest the punks themselves who nihilistically proclaim that nothing matters, or at least nothing Marcia is talking about matters.

There’s a sense of clashing philosophies. Marcia sympathises with a waitress in the café who has to ask them to leave since they won’t order. The punks are contemptuous and take the view that if they cause the waitress to lose her job that’s no great loss for anyone concerned.

Put like that it sounds like an ordinary argument. Idealism versus cynicism. But it’s not that simple because Mao and Lenin are arguing for the purity of love and what could be more idealistic than that? The punks are transcendent: black and white and pure of purpose. Marcia is ruddy, earthy, everyday. Marcia fears that once the punks see how ordinary she actually is they may prefer the waitress to her. She doesn’t see what they do: that love itself makes her extraordinary.

Or perhaps it doesn’t. I’m not absolutely sure. I talked of a sense of clashing philosophies and part of why this stays so sharp in hindsight is that it is just a sense – Aira doesn’t spell anything out and the uncertainty of what’s at stake somehow makes the impact all the more powerful.

While in the café the punks tell Marcia a story of an acquaintance and a lost necklace. It’s a reflection of the wider novel – not in terms of content or structure but in terms of how the two cannot be separated:

Marcia couldn’t believe it. This was the first time in her life that she had heard a well-told story, and it had seemed to her sublime, an experience that made up for all the fears this meeting had caused.

To start with, she grasped that it was not done to go on praising the form; such praise had to be transmitted implicitly in her comments on the content. But she was so dazzled that content and form became intertwined; whatever she might say about the former would inevitably be transferred to the latter.

The conversation ends; the punks declare that love requires proof and from there the novel goes at unstoppable pace to an extraordinary and bloody conclusion. To the extent it was ever realistic it leaves that realism gasping in its wake (yet without any element of the fantastical).

At the end I can’t actually say what The Proof is about, or indeed if it’s even about anything much at all. I don’t understand it. I think that’s part of what I like about it. It’s audacious. It’s tremendous fun. I love it as Mao loves Marcia – for itself but without reason. I’ve already bought more Aira.

Other reviews

Only one I have a note of which is by Grant of 1st Reading here. Grant’s review persuaded me to give this a go and I’m very glad I did.

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Filed under Aira, Cesar, Argentinian Literature, Spanish Literature

By my faith, Señor Master, other people’s troubles don’t matter very much

Don Quixote, volume two, by Miguel De Cervantes and translated by Edith Grossman

If you’ve not read Don Quixote, there’s a few things you probably don’t know about it. The first is that although everyone talks about it as if it were one novel, it’s not. It’s two novels, written ten years apart. We put them together as one title now, but that’s not how they were originally published. Trying to read them in one go makes for a much tougher read than is actually necessary.

The second thing you probably don’t know is that every famous incident from Don Quixote, everything people who’ve not read the books have heard of, is from the first book. The irony of that is that while it’s the first volume that made Cervantes famous, the second is actually the more interesting and enjoyable.

grossman-cover

The events of the second volume take place a while after the first. During the break between adventures the first volume has been published and become a bestseller. In fact, it’s already had a sequel written, but it’s a copycat work written by another author – a crude pastiche that pretends to tell the story of what happened next but that’s not a patch on the original and that makes caricatures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (all of this really happened by the way, the characters therefore come to comment on their own fictional portrayal).

Don Quixote has been avoiding chivalric fiction so he doesn’t know that he’s now a celebrity until Bachelor Sansón Carrasco, a gentleman of Don Quixote’s village and of known good character (“people like him can’t lie except if they feel like it or it’s very convenient”), breaks the news. Naturally, Don Quixote is curious to hear how his story has been received:

“but tell me, Señor Bachelor: which deeds of mine are praised the most in this history?”

“In that regard,” responded the bachelor, “there are different opinions, just as there are different tastes: some prefer the adventure of the windmills, which your grace thought were Briareuses and giants; others, that of the waterwheel; one man favors the description of the two armies that turned out to be two flocks of sheeps; the other praises the adventure of the body that was being carried to Segovia for burial; one says that the adventure of the galley slaves is superior to all the rest; another, that none equals that of the two gigantic Benedictines and the dispute with the valiant Basque.”

“It seems to me,” said Don Quixote, “there is no human history in the world that does not have its ups and downs, especially those that deal with chivalry; they cannot be filled with nothing but successful exploits.”

“Even so,” responded the bachelor, “some people who have read the history say they would have been pleased if its authors had forgotten about some of the infinite beatings given to Señor Don Quixote in various encounters.”

Quite. To quote myself from my review of the first volume of “this great and accurate history” – it’s hard to avoid the realisation that much of the book consists of an old man with dementia being repeatedly humiliated and beaten.

Carrasco continues to explain the criticisms volume one received:

“One of the objections people make to the history,” said the bachelor, “is that its author put into it a novel called The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious, not because it is a bad novel or badly told, but because it is out of place and has nothing to do with the history of his grace Señor Don Quixote.”

Again, quite. This was also one of the issues I mentioned having in my review of volume one. There were actually two interpolated novels, and Carrasco is right that they weren’t badly told, it’s just that neither remotely fit the rest of the book.

It turns out that there isn’t a single criticism I had of the first book that some contemporary of Cervantes didn’t also have, and Carrasco covers pretty much every one of them. It may not sound it, but it’s incredibly funny. Volume one wasn’t a quick read and while I loved it overall there were definitely parts that I had to push my way through. There is something quite joyous in starting volume two and seeing Carrasco and Don Quixote candidly discussing those failings. Carrasco even covers the various plot holes:

some have found fault and failure in the author’s memory, because he forgets to tell who the thief was who stole Sancho’s donkey, for it is never stated and can only be inferred from the writing that it was stolen, and soon after that we see Sancho riding on that same donkey and don’t know how it reappears. They also say that he forgot to put in what Sancho did with the hundred escudos he found in the traveling case in the Sierra Morena, for it is never mentioned again, and there are many who wish to know what he did with them, or how he spent them, for that is one of the substantive points of error in the work.”

It’s incredibly audacious, and utterly modern. That’s perhaps an odd thing to say of a book written in the early 17th Century, but it’s one of the most striking things about it.

Soon after their conversations with Carrasco, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza fall back into their old madness and folly and decide to go back on the road. The difference this time though is that pretty much everyone they meet knows who they are from reading volume one. Where once they deceived themselves, now they find themselves deceived by others as strangers play to Quixote’s madness hoping to see him act as he did in the book they read.

Whether the result is funny or tragic depends in part on the individual reader. In a way it’s both, and I’ll return to that below.

People prey upon Quixote’s madness for their own amusement, inventing elaborate schemes in the hope of leading him to greater follies. For much of the book he falls in with a duke and duchess who put him to a variety of sadistic trials, testing his chivalry for the diversion of their court.

At the same time Quixote and Sancho are more knowing here. At one point Sancho deliberately deceives Quixote, relying on Quixote’s madness to avoid the consequences of Sancho’s own misdeeds. Another time, Quixote goes alone into a cave and comes out telling of strange adventures he had within, which is fine and in line with his normal behaviour except that some of his later comments suggest he knows perfectly well that he simply made those particular exploits up.

What we’re seeing then is a loss of innocence. In the original Quixote is purely mad, Sancho purely a fool. Here Quixote is still mad and Sancho still a fool, but through Carrasco and Cervantes they have a greater sense of what they are. They are becoming disenchanted.

That’s what makes it hard to say whether this book is comedy or tragedy (of course the truth is it’s both at the same time). In some ways it’s crueler than the first book, because where previously they were beaten or humiliated by reason of their own misunderstandings here people see their innocence and take advantage of it. In a sense they meet Cervantes’ readership, laughing at them.

What makes it perhaps worse is that while Quixote’s chivalry is a romantic nonsense that doesn’t change the truth of his goodness. Time and again it’s commented how wise and intelligent he is when speaking to matters outside of his madness. His madness though drives him into the world to help others, to defend the weak and help the helpless. It’s a divine madness.

Sancho Panza seems avaricious, lazy and vulgar, but that isn’t of course what defines him. Rather it’s his wonderful loyalty. When eventually he is given a governorship as he was long promised (the result of another of the duke and duchess’ pranks) he turns out to be rather good at it because when put to the test his desire to do what right is greater than his desire to line his own pockets. He passes sensible laws and makes careful judgments. He is a good man. His folly lies in his faithfulness to Don Quixote even though he knows perfectly well that Quixote is mad, but it’s a folly that brings out his better self.

Quixote’s madness then is elevating. It makes Quixote risk himself for others, it makes Sancho Panza deny himself for others. It is a beautiful dream that is better than the savage Spain that is the reality around them. The comedy is how their dream is so ill-fitted to the world they live in, and the tragedy is that too.

I’m starting to make it sound gloomy, and perhaps it is but the act of reading it isn’t gloomy at all. It’s packed with sharp little one-liners and asides, much of the best dialogue of course going to Sancho Panza (“Señor, the devil has made off with my donkey.”). There’s a wonderful comic double-act between him and Quixote, with Sancho peppering his speech with quotes and sayings in such profusion that his meaning gets quite lost (although as he astutely observes sometimes his meaning remains quite clear and Quixote is simply indulging in snobbery, refusing to understand because he finds Sancho’s manner vulgar).

Sancho’s dialogue and insights are much more sophisticated here than in the first volume. So much so in fact that the translator within the fiction (the conceit is that Cervantes has had the work translated into Spanish) comments that he considers some passages apocryphal on the basis that they show more intelligence in Sancho than he possesses. We’re back to that ultra-modernity there of course, a text that comments on itself and that casts doubt on its own authority – therefore underlining its own artificiality. It’s much clearer to me having read this volume why Josipovici called it the first modernist novel.

For all his greater intelligence though, Sancho couldn’t get to the point if his life depended on it. At the court of the mischievous duke and duchess he tells a nicely observed story about the realities of power. It needs about two paragraphs. At this point he’s already half a page into it:

“Well, then, Señores,” Sancho continued, “I say that this nobleman, and I know him like I know my own hands because it’s only the distance of a crossbow shot from my house to his, gave an invitation to a farmer who was poor but honorable.” “Go on, brother,” the cleric said at this point. “You’re on the way to not finishing your story until you’re in the next world.”

“I’ll stop when I’m less than halfway there, God willing,” responded Sancho. “And so, I say that when this farmer came to the house of this nobleman, and may his soul rest in peace because he’s dead now, and he died the death of an angel from what people tell me, since I wasn’t present at the time because I had gone to Tembleque to work in the harvest—”

“On your life, my son, return quickly from Tembleque, and without burying the nobleman, and unless you want more funerals, finish your story.”

“Well, the fact of the matter is,” replied Sancho, “that when the two of them were ready to sit down at the table, and it seems to me I can see both of them now as clear as ever …”

I quote that because it’s easy when discussing this to make it sound terribly serious, whereas much of it in fact is closer to a Morecambe and Wise sketch set in early 17th century Spain. The point perhaps is that it’s just not possible to do justice to a book like this.  Theses have been written on it. It’s been the subject of literally centuries of scholarship. I could write 10,000 words and barely have scratched its surface and along the way I’d have lost the sheer fun of it.

This is a novel packed with perceptive insights into psychology and society, personal power and political, the nature of fiction and how we engage with reality. It has in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza two of the funniest and yet saddest characters ever to inhabit literature. Along with the duke and duchess we read about the two of them and their adventures, and we laugh at them, but the true joke is on us because they inhabit marvellous dreams while we only live in a crass reality of our own making and our adventures are lived through them.

Cervantes isn’t a romantic, and he’s not one to offer pat interpretations. Any conclusion I could try for would be defeated by some quote, some passage from the book which refuted it. I won’t therefore try for any kind of final judgement on the book. It’s too good for that, too magnificent. Instead I’ll end by urging you if you’re still reading this to read Don Quixote, ideally in this marvellous Edith Grossman translation. Literature literally does not get better than this.

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Filed under Cervantes, Miguel de, Spanish Literature

SOMEWHERE IN LA MANCHA, in a place whose name I do not care to remember

Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes and translated by Edith Grossman, the first volume

How do you write about a book widely considered as being the first modern novel, the first novel in the sense in which we use that word today? A book thought by many, some of whom have even read it, as one of the greatest ever written? Well, the same way as any other I guess. Nothing kills literature faster than treating it with respect.

Emma of bookaroundthecorner has mentioned in the past having a mental category of daunting books. If ever a book fit that category, it’s Ulysses. And perhaps Gravity’s Rainbow. But however you cut it, Don Quixote is probably in the top three.

It’s not just a question of sheer physical bulk, though the Grossman translation clocks in at around 940 pages which isn’t to be sniffed at (though by way of comparison, the first two Game of Thrones’ novels alone add up to over 1,500 or so). It’s also a question of complexity, of unfamiliarity, and if I’m honest of the question of whether I’m up to a book that important.

What does it mean though to be up to a book? It speaks to us or it doesn’t. We enjoy it or we don’t. If others get more from it, well, that’s great for them but it doesn’t diminish our own experience of it (or shouldn’t anyway). If I knew more about early 17th Century Spain, about chivalric literature, about the cultural scene Cervantes was part of there’s no doubt that I’d take more from this book. That isn’t, however, a reason not to read it.

grossman-cover

What’s odd when you start Don Quixote is of course how familiar so much of it is. Don Quixote, the old knight driven mad by his books of chivalry who imitates what he read in them as if it were all true. Sancho Panza, his loyal if not particularly bright squire. Rocinante, Don Quixote’s broken down old nag of a horse. The makeshift armour, and of course the windmills.

If it were just all that this would be a fun book, but not perhaps a great one. It’s also though a satire of contemporary politics and of popular fiction, it embraces exploration of psychology rather than mere recounting of deeds, it mixes tragedy and comedy so that as I read it I alternated between laughing and being appalled. It asks whether it’s better to live in a mediocre and indifferent reality rather than a glorious but wholly fallacious fantasy. It’s all that and more. It’s slippery.

Don Quixote inhabits a dream of a better world, a dream informed by the chivalric romances that he has read so many of (and which the book sets out to skewer, an element of satire perhaps slightly less topical now than when it was written). His is a kingdom inhabited by noble knights, beautiful and virtuous maidens, sorcerors both helpful and maleficient, giants and magical devices of great power. It is literally a wonderful place, driven by grand passions. A knight errant can do great deeds, be remembered in this world and rewarded in heaven.

Don Quixote inhabits a Spain driven by commerce and petty cruelty. His world is one inhabited by grasping innkeepers, lecherous prostitutes, irreligious priests, bandits and poverty. It is a profoundly vulgar place, driven by self-interest. A man can do what he likes and can get away with, but in the end he like everyone else will die and be forgotten.

“That’s the way,” said Sancho, “I’ve heard it said in sermons, we should love Our Lord: for Himself alone, not because we hope for glory or are afraid of punishment. But I’d rather love and serve Him for what He can do.”

It’s that contrast, the gap between Don Quixote’s shining and beautiful dream and his grubby reality, that drives the book’s comedy and its tragedy. I loved watching Don Quixote justify to Sancho Panza the absurd outcomes of their adventures by reference to evil enchanters and strange illusions and truths that only a true knight can see. At the same time, it’s hard to avoid the realisation that much of the book consists of an old man with dementia being repeatedly humiliated and beaten.  

Much of the comedy is at the character level, but there is a great deal too at a metatextual level. In one scene two characters go through Don Quixote’s library in his absence, deciding which books should be burnt as dangerous and which preserved as worthwhile:

But what’s that book next to it?” “La Galatea, by Miguel de Cervantes,” said the barber. “This Cervantes has been a good friend of mine for many years, and I know that he is better versed in misfortunes than in verses. His book has a certain creativity; it proposes something and concludes nothing. We have to wait for the second part he has promised; perhaps with that addition it will achieve the mercy denied to it now; in the meantime, keep it locked away in your house, my friend.”

Similarly, Cervantes has fun with the conceit that this isn’t actually his book but merely one that he has found and had translated  (apparently a common literary device at his time):

Saying this, and grasping his sword, and protecting himself with his shield, and attacking the Basque were all one, for he was determined to venture everything on the fortune of a single blow. The Basque, seeing him attack in this fashion, clearly understood the courage in this rash act and resolved to do the same as Don Quixote. And so he waited for him, shielded by his pillow, and unable to turn the mule one way or the other, for the mule, utterly exhausted and not made for such foolishness, could not take another step. As has been said, Don Quixote was charging the wary Basque with his sword on high, determined to cut him in half, and the Basque, well-protected by his pillow, was waiting for him, his sword also raised, and all the onlookers were filled with fear and suspense regarding the outcome of the great blows they threatened to give to each other, and the lady in the carriage and all her maids were making a thousand vows and offerings to all the images and houses of devotion in Spain so that God would deliver the squire and themselves from the great danger in which they found themselves. But the difficulty in all this is that at this very point and juncture, the author of the history leaves the battle pending, apologizing because he found nothing else written about the feats of Don Quixote other than what he has already recounted.

Cervantes loves playing this kind of game with the reader. There’s often a sense of him winking at you, commenting on what he’s doing as he’s doing it and knowingly playing with the artificiality of his form. This is not a book you can disappear into, a sort of alternate reality that offers escape from the everyday.

Gabriel Josipovici in his What Ever Happened to Modernism? argued that Don Quixote was the first modernist novel, and while so far at least I don’t fully agree with him (I think he underemphasises the traditions that Don Quixote grew out of) he does still have a point. Most fiction does present a world that the reader can escape into, a sort of Quixotean alternative to the quotidian. Cervantes denies that. As you read he reminds you that you are holding a written artefact, crafted by a person behind the narrative. Ironically Don Quixote is a novel that precludes the reader from the Quixotean experience that fiction generally offers.

I don’t want though to give the impression that reading Don Quixote is a highbrow experience. The more you dig the more you’ll get out of the book, certainly there’s more in there than I’ve discovered, but it’s also deeply rooted in physical comedy and a certain theatre of the absurd:

“… come here and see how many molars and teeth I have lost, because it seems to me I do not have a single one left in my mouth.” Sancho came so close that his eyes were almost in his master’s mouth; by this time the balm had taken effect in Don Quixote’s stomach, and just as Sancho looked into his mouth, he threw up, more vigorously than if he were firing a musket, everything he had inside, and all of it hit the compassionate squire in the face. “Mother of God!” said Sancho. “What’s happened? Surely this poor sinner is mortally wounded, for he’s vomiting blood from his mouth.” But looking a little more closely, he realized by the color, taste, and smell that it was not blood but the balm from the cruet, which he had seen him drink, and he was so disgusted by this that his stomach turned over and he vomited his innards all over his master, and the two of them were left as splendid as pearls.

This is of course only a review of the first volume. The second volume was written about ten years after the first, which means that for the book’s earliest readers this first volume was all there was. I’ve found before with major classic works that were published over a space of years that it can be much more rewarding not to try to swallow them all at once. There’s a risk of turning a book into a chore if you don’t allow yourself a break, whereas if you take it in the original installments you can have the pleasure of looking forward to the next part.

In this case I’m particularly pleased to have taken that approach. The first volume of Don Quixote contains two interpolated novellas within the text. These are stories told by characters within the narrative which bear no particular relation to the wider story. One is a tale of the perils of too rigorously testing your wife’s fidelity, while the other is a romantic tale of adventure among the Moors.  Apparently this sort of interpolated text was routine in Cervantes’ day, As the ever-helpful endnotes explain – “it was a fairly common practice to insert a romantic tale with Moorish themes into works that otherwise seemed to have little to do with either romance or the Moors.”

Unfortunately, I haven’t the faintest interest in romantic adventures with the Moors, and so I found that part of the book fairly heavy going. In the context of knowing that I was just reading the first part that was fine. There was plenty otherwise that I liked and there was an end in sight. Had I been going straight on to the second part I might have been a bit more demoralised by having to plough through a section that I just plain didn’t care about with several hundred pages to go afterwards.

My edition is the Edith Grossman translation. I’ve not read the original, but I can say that the language here is fluid and lively and a pleasure to read. The volume and content of the endnotes is well chosen – not so many that you drown in references, but illuminating and identifying elements I might have missed or explaining things that genuinely puzzled me. There’s also a nice sense of humour occasionally in the explanations, as here where Grossman explains a latin quote:

These lines are from Ovid, not Cato, and they translate roughly as “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.”

As I write this I’m preparing to launch back in and read the second part. Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can make, both to the book and the translation. I’ve read some 450 pages so far and I plan to read another 500 or so more. I’m looking forward to them. This really is a great book, and like most great books while it can seem a little forbidding from a distance once you launch into it it’s quickly apparent why it’s lasted as long as it has.

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Filed under Cervantes, Miguel de, Modernist Fiction, Spanish Literature

Spanish fury

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.

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Filed under Captain Alatriste, Historical Fiction, Military Fiction, Pérez-Reverte, Arturo, Spanish Literature