Arturo Pérez-Reverte. New York : G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2007.
Abundance is a terrible thing to waste, it seemed to me, as my eyes caught the name Arturo Pérez-Reverte on a book's spine. Remembering the many times people--such as La Bloga's Friday columnist, Manuel Ramos--recommended reading this author's other books, "waste not, want not," I told myself, and took home The Sun Over Breda. In a lucky irony, checking this author off my "to be read" list increases the list by two more titles, now that I discover The Sun Over Breda is the third in a series of historical novels featuring the same character, Captain Diego Alatriste y Tenorio.
Alatriste's third story runs only 273 pages that read very quickly in a lively prose that must be a tribute to putative translator Jean Schalekamp's skill. I say "putative" in that the book is dedicated "For Jean Schalekamp, damned hertic, translator, and friend." The translator of this novel gets no other acknowledgment that I could find. It's an odd omission. Unless Pérez-Reverte wrote this one in English, it's disappointing not seeing the translator’s art acknowledged. When one reads a work in translation, after all, the translator is as much the "real" author as the person named in big letters on the cover. I wonder if the translators of the Spaniard's work into 28 other languages labor in similar anonymity?
Give Pérez-Reverte credit for a great summer read with The Sun Over Breda. The narrator, a man named Íñigo Balboa, is recounting hair-raising war stories dating back to when Balboa was still a child yet experiencing all manner of seventeenth century infantry warfare during the Spanish campaign in Flanders: clashing armies shooting one another with harquebus balls, inevitable defeat by repeated cavalry charges, trench warfare, dagger fighting by feel alone in the depths of a Dutch tunnel. This is exciting action that Pérez-Reverte brings into focus in quick succession, hardly giving the reader pause to catch a breath.
Through calmly bloodthirsty heroics, the narrator’s voice remains a bit of a mystery. Is he nostalgically ticking off a few scars to an old friend? Or has Balboa’s tumultuous career brought him to face a board of inquisitors, telling a story that will save his life? There is a suggestion of the latter.
Íñigo Balboa is fourteen as the novel opens. The boy is not a soldier, he's a spear-carrier. In 1624, an infantryman like Alatriste carries into battle his harquebus and a small supply of munitions, maybe six rounds. His mochilero follows literally in the fighters' footprints, weighted down by all the gunpowder, lead shot, fuse cord, water, and food needed in battle. And he’d best be handy with a blade in heat of battle.
For all his derring-do, Alatriste is less interesting than Balboa. During a foraging run—their war was find your own food or starve—mochilero Balboa comes across a Spaniard and a Dutch clergyman frantically saving books from a flaming library. Íñigo helps, expressing understanding of the treasure he’d preserved, choosing books over food. The boy can read and write, reads Cervantes when he can, and is the informant who helps Diego Velásquez get the details just right in Velásquez’ painting of the victory at Breda.
These facts, however, remain lost in what appear deliberate efforts to cleanse the historical record of Balboa and Alatriste. Pérez-Reverte offers a small selection of literary evidence to establish with some certitude the facts of the conspiracy. Most telling evidence, the book’s Editor says in an afterword, is the painted over face of Captain Alatriste in the famous painting. The spot remains for the world to see behind the horse, though art critics disagree, and Alatriste may have been painted over elsewhere in the background.
A reader is left to wonder what Íñigo Balboa and Captain Alatriste must have done. They seem like good guys, too. To have given so much for Spain, yet to have their existence so permanently emended? This is why we have novels.
February ends, gente, August comes. And here we are, Tuesday, 31 July, 2007, a day like any other day, except, you are here. Thanks for reading. Until next week, early August, te wacho. mvs
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