I love capes. And swords. And boots that go over the knee. Swashbuckling, gallantry, melancholy heroes. I don’t even object to villains in black. Now it’s true that Arturo Pérez-Reverte does not specifically mention the boots in Captain Alatriste, but everything else is there, and it’s just delicious.
Captain Alatriste is a soldier of fortune, wounded in the Lowlands during the Thirty Years’ War and obliged to earn his keep by performing miscellaneous acts of violence back in Madrid. The tale is narrated by Iñigo Balboa, his youthful hanger-on. (Despite the first-person voice, the point of view shifts into outlooks that Iñigo could not know about: normally I’m pretty picky about this kind of thing but Pérez-Reverte is so firmly in charge that I just went along with it.) Alatriste is hired by two masked men and a sinister priest to kill a pair of travelers in a lonely alley. However, he is so impressed by their courage that he lets them go. Complications ensue, many of which appear very threatening to Alatriste. At the end of the book, we are clearly nowhere near the end of the saga. Which is a good thing if you read as fast as I do.
This is another one of those cases where the author is overqualified for his job. Is that what I mean? It’s like Patrick O’Brian, translator of Simone Weill, writing the Aubrey/Maturin books — he doesn’t have to be as smart as he is to write what is known in the trade as “category” fiction. But when a really intelligent, knowledgeable author takes on one of the ostensibly less ambitious forms of narrative, you often get a really great result.
It’s not that Pérez-Reverte mocks the genre, not at all. But — oh, gosh this is hard to explain. O’Brian creates a formal, omniscient narrator whose primary concern, despite all that salt water and gunfire, is his characters. What’s more his pacing works against the conventions of the genre. He doesn’t slow down to prepare for the big scenes; sometimes he spends ages on nothing at all then drops Maturin in a cannibal’s canoe. Pérez-Reverte, by contrast, works very much within the traditions of historical fiction. It’s as if he’s wearing an Alexander Dumas Hallowe’en costume. The gestures — I mean, he really leans on those capes and swords — are emphatic. There’s frequent acknowledgment of the artificiality of his project, but it’s very graceful. At one moment the narrator says that Alatriste was tempted to laugh “but the stage was not set for comedy.” This plot even links up with The Three Musketeers. Most importantly, the author is having a perfectly wonderful time. Dancing a waltz is artificial and archaic, too, but if you’ve got the right partner it can be intoxicating.
Best of all — there are five more novels in the series.