Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Purity of Blood Arturo Perez-Reverte

Review of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's Purity of Blood

The world of men - real men, men's men, macho men - has a down-these-mean-streets melancholy in Arturo Pérez-Reverte's sleek swashbuckler "Purity of Blood," whose action takes place in the "turbulent, ruined, but still proud Spain" of 1623, and whose hero, Diego Alatriste, carries sadness in his very name.
"Purity of Blood" is the second installment to be translated (last year's "Captain Alatriste" was the first) in a series that cheekily attempts to do for 17th-century Spain what one of Pérez-Reverte's literary heroes, Alexandre Dumas, did for 17th-century France in the "The Three Musketeers" and its sequels. The formula is roughly the same - swordplay plus political intrigue plus male camaraderie - but the mood here is distinctly darker: like an end-of-the-trail Peckinpah western or one of those noble, tragic Japanese pictures about the masterless samurai known as ronin.

The crepuscular atmosphere of these books might surprise readers whose experience of the historical-swashbuckler genre is limited to old Errol Flynn movies and campy postmodern variants like "Pirates of the Caribbean." Flynn, exuberant and perpetually grinning, would not have been well cast as Pérez-Reverte's Hispano-ronin protagonist, a many-scarred veteran of his nation's imperial wars who, we're told, "could show respect for a God who did not matter to him, fight for a cause in which he did not believe, get drunk with an enemy, or die for an officer or a king he scorned." Despite such hyperbolic prose - it's clear that Pérez-Reverte is entertaining himself hugely - there's nothing remotely camp about this approach to the blood-and-thunder material. Pérez-Reverte's romantic fatalism is pure.

The beauty of popular fiction always lies in that sort of whole-hearted conviction, a writer's faith in courage, honor, integrity, love, whatever - a faith that's impossible to fake, difficult even to acquire. Pérez-Reverte obviously came by his through books and movies - the postmodern way - but he has remained determined, stubbornly and admirably, not to be overly ironic about the secondhandedness of his literary creations. So what if his belief is willed rather than instinctual? So what if he seems to feel he lived more vividly in his childhood reading than he has in his day-to-day existence as an adult? I suspect he's not alone.

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