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On Alatriste

May 10, 2021 | awesome

He was not the most honest or pious of men, but he was courageous. His name was Diego Alatriste y Tenorio, and he had fought in the ranks during the Flemish wars. When I met him he was barely making ends meet in Madrid, hiring himself out for four maravedís in employ of little glory, often as a swordsman for those who had neither the skill nor the daring to settle their own quarrels. You know the sort I mean: a cuckolded husband here, outstanding gambling debts there, a petty lawsuit or questionable inheritance, and more troubles of that kind. It is easy to criticize now, but in those days the capital of all the Spains was a place where

Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte

The best historical fictions is the sort that not merely tells a story set in another time and place, but also immerses the reader in that setting, so that the plot and the actions of characters are view from within, as it were, and not merely from the vantage of an outside observer. Like seeing lions on safari, instead of watching them in a zoo’s facsimile of the African savanna. For my money, the Adventures of Captain Alatriste, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, are among the best.

What sets them apart, at least for an English-speaking audience, is the way Pérez-Reverte immerses the reader in the historical period. Set during the Spanish Golden Age, more specifically during the erarly reign of Phillip IV, the reader enters the world of 17th Century Madrid in a way that makes the story feel completely natural. We see the spectacle of Spain at the height of its power, when its armies fueled by the treasures and plunder of the New World fought against multiple enemies in an attempt to dominate Europe, and in some cases came damn close to succeeding, until the day came when they could fight now more.

The hero of the story, Alatriste, is a prototypical swashbuckler, though one beset by melancholy, viewed through the eyes of his squire Inigo Balboa, the son of an old comrade, who is telling the story from the vantage point of years later, his memoirs in effect. There is action, there is romance, treachery and intrigue, but above all there is the setting, seen through the eye of a Spanish hidalgo, form whom the prospect of death is a mere trifle, so long as it is honorable.

What makes this series interesting for an English speaker (the stories are translated from Spanish) is the that the perspective is one we rarely see. English language stories set in this era usually have the Spaniards as a dastardly enemy, their portrayal tainted by the Black Legend and a hefty dose of anti-Catholicism, so its interesting to see the story told from the other side of the fence. Six novels are available in English, the seventh, alas is yet to e translated. I look forward to the day when that is rectified.

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