The Three (Spanish) Musketeers

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A murderer at the the age of thirteen, exiled from Madrid… what future would have had a boy like that?

Well, it seems that he had a pretty interesting future. So interesting that later he considered it worthwhile to write his memoirs. So interesting in fact that these memoirs gave life to a character in a well-known – at least in Spain – novel. And this character, in turn, gave life to a character in a TV series…

Do you know who they are?

The Surrender of Breda by Diego Velázquez [Courtesy of the Museum of Prado, Madrid]
If you have seen the original Spanish version of this post, you may have noted that it contains several quotes by Eduardo Marquina. They are from his play En Flandes se ha puesto el sol, The Sun Has Set in Flanders. Unfortunately, I was unable to find an English translation of this work, and I most definitely draw the line at trying to translate poetry. My apologies, but apart from a brief excerpt, you'll just have to do without.

Captain Contreras

Alonso de Guillén Contreras (1582-1641), better known as Alonso de Contreras, was a Spanish soldier, sailor, adventurer – and writer. In addition to his autobiography, variously translated into English as The Adventures of Captain Alonso de Contreras or The Life of Captain of Alonso de Contreras, he was also the author of a book of navigation about the Mediterranean. Pretty good going by a man who left school at fourteen and lived by his sword, don’t you think? And what’s even better, he wrote well enough so that his autobiography is a real pleasure to read.

After knifing a school fellow when he was thirteen years old (the son of the sheriff, no less), Contreras was exiled from Madrid for a year. He enlisted in the army for Flanders when he returned to Madrid, aged only fourteen, but he deserted in Italy and went to Naples, then to Palermo, where he embarked in a galley. Fought against the Turks, learned to navigate and to speak Turkish, so that by the age of twenty he was a captain of a frigate.

Being rather fond of petticoats, he got into trouble a few times on account of women – and trouble in those times invariably meant violence. On one occasion, Contreras nearly killed his superior officer when the officer violated his lover (a prostitute); a few years later he got married but ended up slaying his wife on account of her infidelity. (Not to mention the friend with whom she happened to be in bed.) Despite of all this, he rose to the rank of ensign, then captain of infantry; they were different times.

For a time he lived as a hermit; he was accused of rebellion and espionage (luckily he was acquitted both times). Fought in the service of the Order of Malta, captured the lover of an important Turkish official, sailed with a letter of marque in the Mediterranean, took part in a voyage to the West Indies where he fought against Sir Walter Raleigh… I could continue, but I think you’ve got it: he was a hard man in hard times, in the words of Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

Just like Captain Alatriste himself.

Captain Alatriste

Viggo Mortensen in the role of Alatriste

Was once a captain
The story goes
Who led men in battle
Though in death’s throes
Oh, señores! What an apt man
Was that brave captain!

(Eduardo Marquina: The Sun Has Set in Flanders)

And so we pass from history to fiction. I’m not betraying any secrets when I say that the character of Captain Alatriste was based on the life of Alonso de Contreras: the very author, Arturo Pérez-Reverte confirms it. He even wrote the prologue to the recent (Spanish) edition of Alonso de Contreras’s autobiography.

I no longer remember how or where I found Captain Alatriste, the first book I’ve ever read by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Probably on one of the shelves on the fourth floor (where they keep the foreign language books) of Foyle’s in Charing Cross Road in London. Whichever way it was, Pérez-Reverte caught my attention with his first sentence:

He was not the most honest or pious of men, but he was courageous.

(Arturo Pérez-Reverte: Captain Alatriste)

It’s not a grandiose sentence, perhaps, but it does hook you. And I think that the first paragraph of Captain Alatriste, a dozen sentences, does it all: if you don’t like it, well, don’t bother to read any further.

In point of fact, Captain Alatriste wasn’t a captain. This soldier of the old tercios gained this nickname in a battle in Flanders, when the real captain had died and he was left to command the troops during a long day of fight. This battle doesn’t form part of the book, apart from the brief explanation as to where the nickname originated from; the book starts a few years later, when Alatriste is struggling to survive in Madrid, hiring himself out as a swordsman for men with little valour and less skill with the sword. Throughout the seven novels, Alatriste lives a very similar life to that of Alonso de Contreras’s, with all that this signifies: fighting in Flanders, sailing in a galley on the Mediterranean, getting into trouble on account of a woman…

All this sort of stuff made a fantastic reading from the pen of a soldier with little education; it makes a superb tale from the pen of an author with the talent of Pérez-Reverte.

Alonso de Enterríos

First of all, permit me to find out who is this Captain Alatriste, for whom everybody mistakes me…

(Alonso de Enterríos, The Ministry in Time)

Well, actually, I can’t remember if Alonso de Enterríos, a character in the Spanish TV series, The Ministry of Time, was a captain or not; I don’t think so, but this doesn’t matter because he was so obviously a copy of Captain Alatriste. Such a copy, in fact, that everybody was constantly making jokes about it to him.

The plot of TV series is that the Ministry of Time is a secret Spanish government institution whose function is to guard the doors of time and prevent anybody from changing history. Alonso de Enterríos, recruited from the 16th century, is a member of one of the patrols of the ministry. It’s a fairly entertaining series if you like history and science-fiction.

The True History of…

Alonso de Contreras wasn’t the only Spanish soldier who wrote about his life. I recommend you these two books: :

  • Bernal Díaz del Castillo: The (True History of the) Conquest of New Spain – written by a foot soldier of Hernán Cortés, the book tells the story of the conquest of Mexico
  • Francisco Balbi di Correggio: The Siege of Malta 1565 – written by an Italian-Spanish soldier, it tells the story of the famous defence of Malta against the Turks

(Someday – if I’ll ever find the time! – I’m going to write a post about these two. They deserve it.)

Links:The Burning Mountain of Huexotzinco (an excerpt from The Conquest of New Mexico)A book review of Captain Alatriste in the Guardian

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