Is there any more romantic a hero than the lone swordsman? He stands silhouetted against the rays of the setting sun, his wide-brimmed plumed hat set at a rakish angle and his cloak decoratively draped over one shoulder.
From the Three Musketeers to Errol Flynn and Zorro, we have been seduced by their daring deeds and their manly mien. Ready at a moment’s notice to risk all for God, King, justice, and a fair lady’s blessing, the swordsman will leap into the fray. Pure of heart and noble of purpose, he is chivalry personified and an example for us all.
Now there is a new star to shine amongst the pantheon of heroic figures: Captain Diego Alatriste. Alatriste is the creation of Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte and his English-language debut is the book simply titled Captain Alatriste. How much this long overdue appearance owes thanks to the forthcoming movie starring Viggo Mortensen, as the good Captain, is doubtless just idle speculation.
Whatever the reasoning behind the appearance of book one last year, and number two (Purity Of Blood) this year, fans of a thinking person’s adventure story have reason to be grateful. Arturo Perez-Reverte has created a character who goes far beyond the one-dimensional hero of the past, and takes the whole notion of the heroic swordsman and stands it on its ear.
Diego (the Captain is an honorific, he never was an officer in the army) Alatriste is a survivor of the first round of the Spanish wars in what we now know as the Netherlands. He has come home to Madrid to recover from a wound that has left him in pain, but has not disabled his abilities with a knife and a rapier.
In order to make ends meet he, like so many ex-soldiers he has become a sword for hire. For the right amount of money he will provoke a duel with anyone you want and dispatch them to greet their maker. Were you insulted at court? Has your wife been sleeping with someone you don’t approve of? Diego will act as your means to reclaim honour.
Our hero is a hired killer, no more, no less. If the price is right, he will ensure that a person receives half a foot of good Toledo steel through their throat. He’s a far cry from those gallants who never seem to have to earn money to make ends meet while they rescue damsels in distress or save the honour of the King.
As the story progresses we learn that Diego is perhaps far more noble in his realism than any of his predecessors were in their romanticism, in the game of swordsmanship. His rules of conduct, primarily – never stab anyone in the back, are attempts to hang on to the vestiges of honour he once adhered to. He has no illusions about what he does, and knows there is nothing noble or brave in being a hired killer.
We learn about Diego and his life from his former ward, Inigo. The son of a former comrade in arms, he had been sent by his mother at the age of thirteen to be page to the man who had sworn to see him into manhood. As this vow had been taken while Inigo’s father was dying from musket ball wound, there could be no going back on it.
It is through Inigo’s observations of the Captain that we find out about the demons that plague Diego. How he will on occasion sit up the whole night drinking, growing more and more silent in the quiet of their room, and sit staring at his sword and knife hung on the wall as if they were a curse.
It is through two sets of eyes that we see 17th-century Madrid. The wide-eyed, somewhat innocent eyes of a thirteen year old boy filled with illusions of heroism and grandeur; and those same eyes years older looking back on events, providing a filter of cynicism through which impressions are sieved.
In one breath, he will tell us about what a dashing figure the young King Phillip IV of Spain cuts in his youth, and then proceed to describe his future descent into ineffectualness and incompetence. Listen to Inigo’s description of what was called Spain’s golden age:
“And that infamous period was called the Siglo de Oro? What Golden Age, eh? The truth is that those of us who lived and suffered through it saw little gold and barely enough silver. Sterile sacrifice, glorious defeats, corruption, rogues, misery, and shame; that we had up to the eyebrows.” Arturo Perez-Reverte, Captain Alatriste, Penguin Canada, 2005 p.108-109.
It is against this backdrop that our hero’s adventure takes place. He is hired by mysterious masked men to frighten two English travelers. He and an accomplice are to accost them in a back alley, rob them of some papers, and let them go on their way.
But then the orders are mysteriously changed. One of the two masked men leaves the room only to be replaced by a member of the Inquisition and the orders become darker. The two heretics are to be killed as quickly and quietly as possible.
But during the attack, the man Diego has singled out as his victim acts in such a manner as to awaken the Captain’s sense of honour. Not only does he refrain from killing his target, but he also saves the life of his companion. Oh how are lives are shaped by one little deed.
From here on in, he is drawn into a web of political intrigues that threaten his life on more than one occasion. One does not foil the plans of the Inquisition lightly, no matter how honourable your intentions.
Perez-Reverte has created in Captain Alatriste the perfect anti-hero swashbuckler. At times moody and introspective, but always real and alive, he is a perfect antidote to the syrupy heroes of film and cheap romances. He knows the things men are capable of doing in the name of God, King, and Country, as he has done most of them himself. But still he tries to hang on to the ideals of honour and justice in the face of changing times and opposition from powerful figures.
Captain Alatriste is not only a fun-filled ride of sword fights and daring deeds, but it exposes the reality that has too long been hidden behind the mask of the romantic hero. Long live the Captain, and may he live to fight many a battle for our entertainment and edification.