When I travel anywhere I like to take a book that relates to the place I’m visiting. It’s usually a novel set there or a book on the history of the place – or more likely, one of each. Walking down Milsom Street in Bath after you read Persuasion becomes that just a little bit more special. The Torre de Oro in Sevilla seems far more impressive when you know its history. And so, planning to visit Venice soon, I recently embarked on re-reading the Alatriste series of Arturo Pérez-Reverte because Book VII, The Bridge of Assassins, is set in Venice. Those famous churches, bridges and canals will acquire a certain sinister significance when viewed through the eyes of the would be assassins of the Doge.
Although I own the Alatriste books in the original, they have been, in fact, translated into English and (in order) go: Captain Alatriste, Purity of Blood, The Sun Over Breda, The King’s Gold, The Man in Yellow Doublet, The Pirates of the Levant and finally, the afore-mentioned The Bridge of Assassins. And although the titles, especially when you look at the book covers of the English editions might put you in mind of the more lurid penny dreadfuls, this series is high quality entertainment, more than capable of holding its own against illustrious predecessors like Alexandre Dumas and Robert Louis Stevenson. In fact, the film made from the series – beautifully shot in a manner reminiscent of Diego Velázquez’s paintings – was marketed in English as The Spanish Musketeer, and it’s not difficult to understand why. (If I had to pick which musketeer, it’s the world-weary and cynical Athos.) But I would not dismiss Alatriste as merely a modern Spanish rip-off of Dumas.
From War Correspondent to Writer
Arturo Pérez-Reverte used to be a journalist – a war correspondent of the Spanish Television, to be exact, and he freely admits that his books are influenced by what he witnessed as a journalist. He wrote his first book, The Hussar, in 1986, turning his life experiences into a novel, a way of trying to come to terms with some of the things he witnessed during the course of his day job. “The novel made me feel good, although nobody read it,” he said in an interview with the Jot Down Magazine in December 2015. It was only his third novel, The Flanders Panel, that achieved success – and not in Spain, to begin with. “To my surprise I went to war [the first Gulf War in 1990] being a reporter and on coming back, my novel was a bestseller. And not in Spain: it started to sell abroad, in France, Italy and the United States, and then in the Spanish market.”
Pérez-Reverte is a very ‘literary’ author, if you can say such a thing; he grew up in a house full of books, reading Xenophon, Homer, Virgil, Dumas, Verne and Stevenson. (A man after my own heart: I did too.) More to the point, he also grew up with Quevedo, Lope de Vega, Calderón, Cervantes and Ruiz de Alarcón – some of whom appear as characters or are quoted in the Alatriste novels. “There are sonnets of Quevedo,” Pérez-Reverte says, “that describe Spain better than Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset together.”
It’s clear that Pérez-Reverte loves his history and loves his Spain; and as he’s also a writer who takes researching his background quite seriously, you learn more than a little Spanish history in passing. In fact, the reason he started writing the Alatriste series was that he felt annoyed with the insipid way his teenage daughter was taught history in school so he ‘commissioned’ her to do some historical research and then he wrote a book based on it – and in consequence the first book in the series bears both of their names on the cover as joint authors.
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 a man had to fight for his life on a street corner lighted by the gleam of two blades.
No era el hombre más honesto ni el más piadoso, pero era un hombre valiente. Se llamaba Diego Alatriste y Tenorio, y había luchado como soldado de los tercios viejos en las guerras de Flandes. Cuando lo conocí malvivía en Madrid, alquilándose por cuatro maravedís en trabajos de poco lustre, a menudo en calidad de espadachín por cuenta de otros que no tenían la destreza o los arrestos para solventar sus propias querellas. Ya saben: un marido cornudo por aquí, un pleito o una herencia dudosa por allá, deudas de juego pagadas a medias y algunos etcéteras más. Ahora es fácil criticar eso: pero en aquellos tiempos la capital de las Españas era un lugar donde la vida había que buscársela a salto de mata, en una esquina, entre el brillo de dos aceros.
The Golden Century
To a foreign reader at least, Alatriste seems as Spanish as they come, and the world he inhabits is even more Spanish. But much as Pérez-Reverte loves Spain, he’s certainly not blind to her faults – you only have to read his blog if you’re in any doubt. The novels are set in the so-called Golden Century, and this era of greatness and decadence, both magnificent and sordid at once, comes to vivid life on their pages. This is Alatriste’s Madrid: the capital of an empire on which the sun never sets… an empire that’s already crumbling at the edges and that’s rotten through in its very core. In the Spanish Empire of the 17th century, everything and everybody is for sale, bureaucracy, corruption and the Inquisition rule supreme, work is considered dishonourable but appearances are everything – and in the streets, the taverns or the theatre friends will draw their swords and run each other through because of a careless word. “I think that this century explains us very well, and what we are now owes much to what we were in the 16th and 17th centuries,” Pérez-Reverte explained.
I started re-reading the series recently, partly because I want to take Book VII to Venice with me like I said but also because these books do my Spanish no end of good. Spanish can be a beautifully idiomatic language and Pérez-Reverte is a real master in using it. I heard that in the case of these series even native Spanish speakers have to, on occasion, refer to the RAE dictionary, as he brought back obsolete words from the Golden Century. All this of course gives a wonderful flavour to Alatriste’s adventures. (I don’t know how much the English translation succeeded in preserving this flavour – based on the excerpt I read on Amazon, not much. It makes for a much easier reading as a consequence, I suppose, if that’s any consolation.)
When I said adventures in Spanish in the title, therefore, I didn’t merely mean the adventures of Alatriste. Pérez-Reverte’s language really makes the books a delight for any student of Spanish. The phrase sursum corda, for example, provided me with a few hours of delightful linguistic speculation before I turned to Google to settle its meaning for good. I found that the phrase actually isn’t obsolete at all but continues in enthusiastic current usage in Spain; for all that, it was not it in any of my dictionaries. And although the meaning was reasonably clear from the context, the origin of the phrase is apparently a mystery to most of the Spaniards themselves. Which is perhaps not so surprising because in point of fact, sursum corda is not Spanish, but Latin: it’s a line from the Latin Mass meaning ‘lift your hearts up’.
So how did a line from Latin liturgy, meaning ‘lift your hearts up’, come to mean ‘a powerful person’?!
In the end, the answer turned out to be quite straightforward: sursum corda is intoned by the priest during the Catholic liturgy, and since until recently priests wielded significant power in Spain, the phrase came to mean a person of power and consequence. The relevant sentence in the book reads, “(he was) determined not to be impressed by an Excellency, nor by a Sursum Corda” and is a typical example of how the phrase is usually used: when refusing to do something ‘even if it was commanded by sursum corda‘. All the linguist in me needs now is a copy of Captain Alatriste in English – to see how the phrase was translated!