Monday, June 11, 2012

Pirates of the Levant (Novel Review)

This is the latest instalment in the adventures of Captain Alatriste. I am an avowed fan of the Alatriste series, the first of which remains one of the best historical novels I've ever read. The books match - if not exceed - my passion for Bernard Cornwell's 'Sharpe' yarns which are mainly set during the Peninsular war. 

For the uninitiated: the novels describe the adventures of Diego Alatriste y Tenorio (a veteran of the 17th C. Spanish army) and his adopted son, Inigo de Balboa, during the reign of King Philip IV in 17th Century Imperial Spain. 

I would say that the Alatriste novels encapsulate the very spirit of Imperial Spain, which is probably why they are so popular in Perez-Reverte's country of origin. These are stories set against the decaying canvas of the latter days of the Spanish Empire, which marry heightened political intrigue with swashbuckling adventure. In 'Pirates of the Levant', there is certainly more of the latter but little of the former, and indeed I would say that this story is a rambling series of events rather than a plot whose intrigue is steadily built up from the first chapter onwards.

The book's main strengths remain Perez-Reverte's hilarious black humour and his meticulous attention to historical detail - although his account of Alatriste's visit to Malta left a bad taste in the mouth. Being an aficionado of Maltese history / Melitensia, I found it quite amazing (if not insulting to the Maltese people) that the island's patron saint was referred to as Saint Peter instead of Saint Paul, and the novel also contained other errors e.g. stating that the siege of Malta of 1565 lasted 'four years' instead of 'four months', and also mispronouncing the name of the proud town of 'Senglea', referring to it instead as 'Sanglea' (amongst other highly irritating errors).

I was completely gobsmacked by this, because one of the usual strengths of this series is the author's intricate accuracy when referring to all aspects of the period. I can only imagine that these mistakes were made when the novel was translated into English, for it is very unlike Perez-Reverte to commit such howlers.

My other observation after reading this book is that the novels in the Alatriste series can be divided into two groups: those that refer to the intrigues between Alatriste and his enemies in King Philip's court (which by far possess the more engaging plotls), and those that portray Alatriste going through the motions which are typical of a Spanish swordsman of the time e.g. partaking of war in Flanders (The Sun Over Breda) or seeking his fortune in the Mediterranean (Pirates of the Levant). 

Whilst the latter batch of Alatriste novels are worth reading for the education which can be derived from them (sloppy errors when referring to Maltese history aside), I find that the entertainment value is greatly diminished when the captain's enemies in the King's court and in the Holy Inquisition are not included in the story. I also find it painfully predictable that the Captain and Inigo receive a letter from both Quevedo and Angelica (in that same order) whenever they are outside of Spain (although it beats me how the letters can find Alatriste and Inigo whilst they are both sailing across the Mediterranean with no specific direction during the 1600s). 

This is quite a shame for it is usually very unlike Perez-Reverte to be predictable, which is another strength of a series which thrives on gritty realism. However 'Pirates of the Levant' (not to mention its predecessor 'The Man In The Yellow Doublet' - which was far too 'Hollywoodian' for my liking) smacks too much of formula, which is something I had never previously equated with Perez-Reverte's potboilers. 

In truth the myth of Alatriste is now starting to feed off itself, and it remains to be seen how much longer this pattern can be sustained by Perez-Reverte, without entirely disenfranchising his most loyal fans.

James Vella-Bardon

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