Fencing is combat turned into art, chaos reduced to science. In that sense, it's like literature; and, like literature, it can rarely be wholly successful. Too rigid an adherence to method shuts out life, or, in fencing terms, risks neglecting the true objective: to win. To fight or tell stories without method is equally self-defeating. Vladimir Nabokov, describing his father's preparations for a duel in prerevolutionary Russia, acknowledges the difficulty of achieving the necessary balance between conscious art and artless feeling even as he achieves it himself--noting, through a fearful child's eyes, "that strange awkwardness which even the most elegant swordsmen cannot avoid in a real encounter."
The elder Nabokov was training under a maitre d'armes much like Jaime Astorloa, the title character of Arturo Perez-Reverte's fourth novel (following "The Flanders Panel," "The Club Dumas" and "The Seville Communion"). Perez-Reverte, a bestselling author of "intellectual thrillers," can hardly be compared to the younger Nabokov, but his hero, Astorloa, can: He is both a master of the art of fencing and a successful duelist.
By 1868, however, when Spain is anticipating the revolt by an odd alliance of republicans and right-wing generals that will depose Queen Isabella II, Astorloa has fallen on hard times. He is past 50. His skills, he fears, have begun to erode. His clients (including Luis de Ayala, a marquis, a former government official and a noted gambler and rake) have dwindled. He lives in genteel poverty in Madrid, giving lessons to teenagers who, in the six-gun age, regard fencing as an anachronism.
"The pistol is not a weapon," Astorloa tells them, "it is an impertinence. If two men are to kill each other, they should do so face to face, not from a distance, like vile highwaymen. Unlike other weapons, the sword has its own ethics and, if you press me, I would almost say it has its own mysticism too."
Astorloa's knightly code, as well as his physical leanness, prompt his friends at the Cafe Progreso (whose quarrels over politics serve as comic counterpoint to the rest of the novel) to compare him to Don Quixote. Ayala, entrusting confidential papers to Astorloa's care because he is "the only honest man I know," goes further: "You carry your windmills inside you."
The chief interest of "The Fencing Master" is this: Can Astorloa's sense of honor sustain him, or does it render him unfit to live in a country that has lost most of its empire and is awash in corruption? Does the fencing lore that fills his mind and Perez-Reverte's pages bring order to life, or does it keep life at a dangerous remove? The test comes in the person of violet-eyed Adela de Otero, half Astorloa's age, whose skill and allure with foil in hand can't help but remind moviegoers of Catherine Zeta-Jones in "The Mask of Zorro."
Astorloa has never taken a female pupil, but he makes an exception in her case--a sign that he isn't quite as set, or as secure, in his ways as he thought. She persuades him to teach her the "200-escudo thrust," a devilish maneuver he has perfected in the course of his lifelong search for something even greater: the fencer's Holy Grail, an "unstoppable thrust." She wangles an introduction to Ayala.
Then, suddenly, Ayala is dead, stabbed through the throat. Adela de Otero has disappeared. A rebel army is marching on Madrid. Hired thugs (not to mention the police) are closing in on Astorloa himself, as if he is not only a love-deluded old fool but also a criminal.
Like Perez-Reverte's prose, which imitates the ornate 19th-century manner to the point of being stiff, the plot of "The Fencing Master" unfolds in a vivid but predictable sequence, like feints and parries in the sword-fighting manual Astorloa is writing. It's fine entertainment, though, despite the moving predicament of the hero, it rarely rises above that level--a little too much artifice, not enough life.