THE FENCING MASTER
By Arturo Perez-Reverte
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Harcourt Brace. 245 pp. $25
It was my own fault really. Corso, the rare-book-scout hero of Arturo Perez-Reverte's sinister mystery, The Club Dumas, would never have made such a fundamental mistake. But I was eager, probably over-eager, for a summer diversion, restless for an intellectual thriller in the tricksy mode of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel and Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost.
These were, after all, the sort of devilishly clever books that Perez-Reverte was known for. I had much enjoyed The Club Dumas, despite its occasionally jarring mistakes -- a wrong word in the famous first sentence of Scaramouche ("He was born with the gift for laughter and a sense that the world was mad"), 223-B, instead of 221-B, as the address for Sherlock Holmes's flat, reference to a hitherto unknown work by Merimee, etc. But these lapses could be forgiven. For what could be more entertaining than a shadowy adventure novel in which a brooding, world-weary book hunter searches for the connection between a manuscript chapter of The Three Musketeers and the three extant copies of a notorious 17th-century manual for summoning up the Devil -- "The Book of the Nine Doors to the Kingdom of Darkness"? The result was spooky, ingenious, sexy and lots of fun.
And, according to friends, so was The Flanders Panel, a sleekly intricate whodunit artfully mingling chess, painting conservation and murder. Last year's The Seville Communion even got its author called, by one reviewer, "the thinking man's Robert Ludlum" -- a somewhat dubious compliment perhaps, but which of us thinking men (or women) is altogether immune to the allure of an insidious international conspiracy? So when I picked up The Fencing Master, I sighed contentedly, sure of an elaborate, ingenious mystery and a very good time.
Caveat lector: Always check the copyright page. A modern first collector does this automatically, if only to verify that a particular copy of, say, All the King's Men or The Bluest Eye is "right." In other words, that it is the true first printing. In the case of novels translated from other languages, this practice may also save one from disappointment: The Flanders Panel, Perez-Reverte's first big hit, appeared in Spain in 1990; The Club Dumas in 1993; and The Fencing Master in . . . 1988. More than 10 years ago. In short, this isn't the latest opus by the accomplished Arturo Perez-Reverte; it's a first novel, principally a study of character, merely hinting at the elaborate plotting of the later thrillers.
Publishers aren't idiots or motley fools. They naturally choose to translate a foreign writer's best or most popular work first. If that book makes money, then they may hope for comparable success from his or her earlier work, always going for the "better" titles. Since Harcourt Brace waited quite a while before publishing The Fencing Master, a shrewd reader should suspect right off that this first novel might be a little problematic.
Not that the book isn't enjoyable throughout. Perez-Reverte knows, whether through craft or instinct, how to create readerly excitement. Don Jaime Astarloa is the finest swordsman in 1860s Madrid. What's more, he is a man who lives by a strict code of honor and rectitude. Now in his late fifties, he teaches a dying art -- skill in fencing is no longer regarded as an essential accomplishment for a gentleman. In fact, the world has grown altogether corrupt. Political advantage matters more than loyalty to one's sovereign; love of money has overridden duty to one's self and family; the old aristocratic ways and military virtues are fast disappearing. Still, Don Jaime remains a traditionalist in his social views, a staunch classicist in his fencing technique, "frozen in time, indifferent to the new fashions of the agitated age he was living through." Growing old, living with stoic simplicity, he devotes himself to a few students and the composition of his "Treatise on the Art of Fencing." But his writing isn't going so well: "If the work was to be the non plus ultra on the subject he hoped it would be, it was essential that it deliver a masterstroke, the perfect, unstoppable thrust." Don Jaime can't complete his book until he discovers this long sought-after "Grail," the unparryable, absolutely irresistible sword thrust.
Now those with acute memories of The Club Dumas may recall that Astarloa's "Treatise on the Art of Fencing" was one of the rare volumes that Corso acquired for his unscrupulous employer, Varo Borja. A pleasing touch, that. They may also remember that the poor suicide who owned the Dumas manuscript resided in a building that was formerly the palace of the Marques de los Alumbres. As it happens, the Marques is Don Jaime's most distinguished and loyal student; the old man and the suave gambler-playboy practice together every morning with their foils. Though once, very briefly, a government minister, the courtly 40ish Marques now lives mainly on his rents and his wits. He is, in some ways, a man of mystery.
But Dona Adela de Otero is a woman of even greater mystery. One night Don Jaime finds himself summoned to her residence. Thick black hair, flashing violet eyes, a small scar near her mouth -- "the fencing master thought that in his now-distant youth such a beautiful face would doubtless have driven him to commit certain foolish acts." Nobody seems to know much about this sultry young beauty -- it's hard not to think of Catherine Zeta-Jones in "The Mask of Zorro" -- but Dona Adela naturally turns out to be a first-rate fencer. With great politeness, edged with cold determination, she pleads with Don Jaime to teach her the secret of his "two-hundred-escudo thrust." Even if not the old master's elusive "Grail," it is a sword maneuver known only to a dozen or so people, one that doesn't appear in any of the standard treatises on dueling, and, most important of all, one that is simple and deadly.
After some hesitation -- women aren't supposed to fence -- Don Jaime eventually agrees to take Dona Adela as a student. Despite the difference of their ages and temperaments, the old sword master finds himself increasingly drawn to this shrewd yet strangely sensitive 27-year-old. They exchange courtesies, verbal repartee, eventually expressions of tenderness. The senora repeatedly tantalizes and teases: "One can never be too unfair to men." But then everything stops when the Marques de los Alumbres grows interested in Dona Adela. And she in him.
At this point, The Fencing Master darkens its tone considerably. Up till now, Perez-Reverte has alternated his main plot with semi-humorous cafe interludes in which a group of Don Jaime's cronies argue about the tedious politics of the day. Civil unrest in the offing. Hints of government malfeasance. Inevitably, the political subplot and the story of Adela, Jaime and the Marques merge. Murder, incriminating documents, Dona Adela's past, possible conspiracy, the inquiries of a Columbo-like policeman, Don Jaime's character -- all lead up to a final, nightmarish duel to the death.
So what's wrong with this enjoyable novel? Nothing much. And that's the problem. It's too simple. Most readers will guess, and guess rightly, the point of all the plot turns. And these, it pains me to say, seem less than original. Why, for instance, would a corpse's face be mutilated? Every mystery reader knows the answer to that one. For the most part, too, The Fencing Master is basically a study of nobility making its last stand at the dawn of a tawdry, whorish era. Our era. As Don Jaime says, "I have spent my whole life trying to preserve a certain idea of myself . . . to cling to a set of values that do not depreciate with time. Everything else is the fashion of the moment, fleeting, mutable. In a word, nonsense."
Alas, Don Jaime or Perez-Reverte tends to repeat these high-minded sentiments every couple of pages, until even the sympathetic reader starts to weary of this latter-day Don Quixote. The wolfish Corso of The Club Dumas is more to our modern taste. Certainly, The Fencing Master is an altogether diverting novel, with Errol Flynn moments, but it's hardly the epic sword-and-sorcery thriller one might expect. Or yearn for, come summer.
But not to worry. I've been saving The Flanders Panel for just such a last-minute vacation emergency. My escape reading this August will still be written by Arturo Perez-Reverte.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.