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Living by wits and trusty blade

Captain Alatriste A Novel Arturo Perez-Reverte Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden Putnam: 258 pp., $23.95

June 26, 2005|Nicholas A. Basbanes | Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author of numerous books, including "A Gentle Madness," "A Splendor of Letters" and the forthcoming "Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World."

Hard on the heels of his smashingly successful 2004 epic novel, "The Queen of the South," Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte is rewarding his growing U.S. readership with an English-language edition of "Captain Alatriste," an action-filled tale of high-level intrigue and double-dealing that has enjoyed enormous popularity in Europe. A $24-million film starring Viggo Mortensen is already in production in Seville and Toledo.

Set in 17th century Madrid, this wonderfully spirited tale in the tradition of Alexandre Dumas will have purists pulling down their old copies of "The Three Musketeers" and "The Count of Monte Cristo" in search of subtle parallels with the swashbuckling exploits of Alatriste, a freelance swordsman who leaves no doubt in this, his debut appearance, that he is the very best at what he does.

A career combatant who never rose above the rank of sergeant -- the title "captain" was conferred on him by grateful comrades for his proficiency on the battlefield -- Diego Alatriste y Tenorio's glory days of military service are well behind him. The Thirty Years War may rage on in Flanders, but it is nowhere near center stage in this fast-paced novel, in which survival is as much a combination of wit and happenstance as it is of thrust and parry.

These days, Alatriste makes do as a blade for hire, performing bodyguard work here and there, occasionally avenging the anger of betrayed husbands or squaring gambling debts for those who can afford his unique services. He is a hard-nosed caballero, to be sure, but one who takes pride in the fact that he has never knifed a man in the back. Alatriste is "not the most honest or pious of men," his young ward, Inigo de Balboa, asserts, but he is "courageous."

Bravery is the one trait above all others that resonates most with Alatriste, as he explains when asked by an incredulous acquaintance why he extended mercy to two Englishmen he had been retained to dispatch one night on a dark road outside the capital. "I was a soldier for nearly thirty years," he says. "I have killed, and I have done things for which my soul will be damned for eternity. But I know how to appreciate the gesture of a courageous man. And heretics or not, those men were courageous."

What Alatriste did not know at the time of that ambush, however, was that one of the Englishmen he had spared was the Prince of Wales, traveling incognito through Spain in hopes of wooing the king's daughter to be his bride. That audacious attempt at international fence-mending between Catholic and Protestant powers, coming as it does some three decades after the sinking of the Spanish Armada fleet in the English Channel, provides the back story of the intricately layered plot.

Who hired Alatriste to do that dastardly deed? Since the contract on the Englishmen was put out partly by well-placed people wearing masks -- with conflicting instructions given in a second meeting immediately thereafter with the feared head of the Spanish Inquisition -- culpability and purpose remain one of the singular mysteries of this entertaining confection. Suffice it to say that Alatriste's extraordinary act of mercy provokes repercussions that could cost him his life, not to mention the deep enmity of a murderous companion who is deprived of a huge payday because of Alatriste's pang of conscience.

Employing a structure similar to the one used in "Queen of the South," Perez-Reverte alternates between omniscient narration and the first-person recollections of Inigo, the son of a fallen soldier whose dying wish was that the captain instruct his boy in the nuances of the world. His characterizations are wonderfully fresh and complex, the freewheeling spirit of the times splendidly evoked, with references to real-life personages such as the artist Velazquez, the novelist Cervantes and the playwright Lope de Vega flitting in and out.

Part of the fun here is the succession of glib aphorisms, which must be musical in the original Spanish but are rendered nicely into English by translator Margaret Sayers Peden all the same. We are variously reminded, for instance, that "cemeteries are filled with curious people," that "no one can escape his own shadow," that in problematic times "knowing too much is worse than knowing too little," that the mesmeric sight of a beautiful woman "is how God blinds those He wants to go astray."

With five installments of this iconic figure's continuing adventures out in Spanish since 1996 -- and English editions coming over the next four years -- it gives nothing away to report that Alatriste lives on to amuse us in further complications. It is a great testament to Perez-Reverte's skill as a storyteller that this does not diminish our concern for the captain, a likable knave whose exploits are such that mediocre poets write sonnets about his valor and troubadours sing songs of his dexterity. "It was one of Diego Alatriste's virtues," Inigo tells us, "that he could make friends in Hell."

To be continued, as they say. *

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