After having read Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s exciting and tumultuous novel The Club Dumas some time ago (it is a free-standing novel at this point, not a part of a series), I made up my mind that his other novels, all apparently written in the great tradition of the adventurous Dumas, must certainly be worth a read too. What with one thing and another, however, I got distracted by other books and literary endeavors, and until I found a copy of his second Captain Alatriste novel, Purity of Blood, on a free shelf at the library, I blush to confess that I had more or less put the great romancer Pérez-Reverte out of my mind.
At first, I hesitated to read the book right away, because usually I am a stickler for doing things in a certain order, and I felt that unless I had already acquired or at least read his first eponymous novel in the series, Captain Alatriste, that I should not go on to the second. But then, a friend assured me that the novels were linked mainly by internal references back and forth to the adventures in each, and each book was still easily readable as a stand-alone experience. So in I leapt. At first, I felt that I was drowning in a sea of Spanish names as Pérez-Reverte built up his world of characters, and I do not know enough Spanish history to be sure, but I suspect that some of the characters in the novel are references to actual poets, con men, and adventurers (other than the king and queen, who appear in cameo fashion, and are of course meant to refer to the real people).
The story is handled very well, and is related by a thirteen-year-old ward of sorts of Captain Alatriste, Íñigo Balboa, in turn with an anonymous omniscient narrator who tells things that happen in Balboa’s absence which he could only know about by being told about them afterwards (which we are free to think is the case if we want). The story flows easily, but the narrative waters are constantly perturbed by the concept of “blood,” both in the amount of it that is (or is in danger of being) shed in petty quarrels and scrapes, and in the troubled history of Spain’s Inquisition period, when the concept of “pure blood” (a descent unmarked by having Jewish or Moorish “blood”) was supreme. I say the concept was supreme, because as the narrator relates from a later period than his thirteen-year-old perspective–and it’s a point made gracefully and well by the rhetoric of events as well as by any rhetoric of declamation, which is kept at a minimum–the concept was all there actually was. As is reiterated by what the characters know already as well as by what they find out, there is no such thing in their world as “pure blood” of any group or category (and our world has already confronted this truth again and again in history, enough to be equally sure, though there are those slow to admit this, and even violently inclined to aver the opposite). People are people, we are all related through Adam and Eve (or through whatever “Ur” figures one chooses to prefer), and any claim to the contrary is a lie.
Romancing about the confrontation of the lie, however, adds another dimension to the dialogue. For example, Pérez-Reverte does not make his positive characters earnest and totally well-intentioned purveyors of the truth, but erstwhile adventurers, scandalous poets, and scoundrels, all of whom have their own reasons for seeking the truth. They are pitted against the evil characters mainly because they are sickened by hypocrisy and have other axes to grind, old grudges and claims and quarrels, and they even have some prejudices of their own against disadvantaged groups, though they do not make victims of these groups. The strongest rhetorical ploy they use which features the question of blood descent in fact comes about because a young nun of Jewish ancestry and the young man, Íñigo Balboa, are in the clutches of the Inquisition, and they must find a way to free them. The very fact that they are not high-flown ministers of justice and the truth but only ordinary culprits and swashbuckling adventurers of men who make use of the truth and come to think the better of the truth in spite of their own prejudices is more convincing in some fictional ways than if they had had totally good intentions themselves to start with.
Finally, there is the rhetoric of the book which cleverly allows the reader not only to participate in a vigorous and page-turning tale of derring-do, but also to feel superior to those benighted characters who persist in their errors to their own undoing. That not all can be saved who should be and not all adequately punished who deserve it is an element of realism which Pérez-Reverte allows to creep into the novel; still, this one realistic gesture makes the otherwise a little fantastic fiction breathe life, and reinforces our awareness of just how unreal the world can become in actual fact when people allow a corrupt idea to lead them into action, and when they make victims of their fellow human beings according to a notion of division and superiority.
I have, of course, written some very serious words about this novel, as I think it deserves, but of course, another good reason to read it is because, quite simply, it’s fun, gripping, and full of wit and wizardry of blade and dagger. After all, it’s not every day our serious lessons about life are accompanied by a generous dose of fantasy and play with history and historical figures. And who better to deliver this combination than Arturo Pérez-Reverte?