Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Arturo Pérez-Reverte: The King's Gold

John Spurling reviews Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The King's Gold.
“There is now an idiotic tendency to despise action in novels,” says a literary critic in Arturo Perez-Reverte's third novel, The Dumas Club, published in 1993. He is defending Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers and its sequels against the accusation that they are not sufficiently serious. Since Perez-Reverte has made his name with elaborate intellectual thrillers in which there is plenty of action, this character is clearly speaking for his author.

The King's Gold, however, as its defiantly run-of-the-mill title suggests, has no pretensions to be intellectual. It is the fourth in a series of the adventures of Captain Diego Alatriste, a 17th-century Spanish soldier, and its plot - the covert capture of a treasure ship from the Indies - is hardly more out of the ordinary than its title.

Perez-Reverte's real interest is less in the cloak-and-dagger stuff than in the historical period. Most of the action takes place in and around Seville during the early years of Philip IV's reign. The poet Francisco Quevedo makes a few appearances, as do the king and his minister, the Count-Duke Olivares, but most of the characters are the kind of swaggering killers - big-booted, wide-hatted, long-moustached and thickly jacketed (against being stabbed) - who populate The Three Musketeers or lounge about with their pipes and flagons in genre paintings of the time. Captain Alatriste and his immediate comrades are, of course, not only seasoned toughs and brilliant swordsmen, but are also sensitive and decent men, so much so that, rather than torture a man to obtain information, the captain prefers to terrify him with a recital of what he might do and then burns his own arm to show what he is capable of.
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