‘Sometimes we give to the devil what he already has.’
The historian and novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte shaped his career as a war correspondent. Between the mid-70s and the early 90s, he reported on Eritrea, Mozambique, Chad, the Lybian Crisis, the Sahara, and the Falklands War, among other conflicts, becoming one of Spain’s most widely read writers.
While he has written a host of successful, full-throttle battle-fiction books, including Cabo Trafalgar (2004), El Husar (1986) and La Tabla de Flanders (1990), it’s the derring-do Captain Alatriste series which has made his name in the English language literary domain.
El Capitán Alatriste (1996) is undoubtedly the most famous of these and has been made into an excellent film starring Viggo Mortensen.
But here I’ve chosen the sixth of the series, Piratas del Levante, which brings to rip-roaring life a fascinating episode in Spain’s maritime history.
The Alatriste books are staged in Madrid in Spain’s Golden Age, during the mid-17th Century, narrated by a young page called Iñigo Balboa, who is in the charge of the eponymous hero Don Diego Alatriste, an impoverished veteran of the wretched Spanish campaigns in Flanders where he served with Iñigo’s late father. In Pirates of the Levant, Iñigo and Alatriste leave behind the courtly intrigues of Madrid and take to the deck of the Mulata, a galleon sailing in the Mediterranean, expected to harry foreign ships, castigate opponents of their faith and fill the coffers of the Spanish crown with whatever they can get their hands on.
Pérez-Reverte’s fiction is unashamedly of the swashbuckling kind (‘The devil has no colour, nation or flag; to create hell on sea and land, all that was needed was a Spaniard and the blade of his sword’), but with all the bravado is a bounty of historical detail. As the Mulata skirmishes with pirate ships and local communities along the African coast -a frontier world of daunting complexity where outposts of compliant, Spanish tax-paying, mogataces alternate with those of hostile Moors, English privateers and itinerant Turkish corsairs (joined in the mix by renegade Dutch, Italians, French and Spanish under Turkish orders) – a gristly picture of old grudges, short-lived alliances, prejudices and vendettas is revealed (‘everyone had an account to settle on that turbulent Mediterranean frontier…a melting pot of races, languages and age-old hatreds’), and there is a heart-grinding retelling of episodes of the Moorish diaspora from Spain, full of anecdotes of the purges that went on in Spanish communities, whose effects would make of the Western Mediterranean a bloodbath of unresolved tensions.
Whereas in El Capitán Alatriste, the first of the series, Iñigo was little more than a boy observing Don Diego’s trials as a sword-for-hire, in Pirates of the Levant he’s in that annoying phase of spiky adolescence where he’ll challenge anything and anybody. After an entertaining gambling trip to Naples, it becomes clear Iñigo needs to be brought down a peg or two, for his own sake. The growing strains of an arrogant young soldier suffering the giddy effects of combat stress, makes an oddly intriguing subplot to the Captain’s adventures. With over thirty years of unspeakable violence under his belt Alatriste of course has been there and done it, but he’s now got a battle on two fronts; to keep Iñigo alive, and save him from himself.
The characters, especially Alatriste’s old mates from his Flanders days, are a joy, and Perez-Reverte knows how to weave all the historical detail and anecdotes into the narrative. But where Perez-reverte excels is in the battle set-pieces. The boarding of a Turkish galliot and subsequent treatment of the raggle-taggle crew of defeated sailors in its aftermath gets the wind in the sails. Then there’s a guilty cabalgada (the cavalcade, a habitual raid looking for ‘livestock and people…decent booty’ carried out on the African coast with the full approbation of the Spanish crown), a full-blooded skirmish with an English frigate, and to end it off a rousting ding-dong with eight Turkish battleships.
The plot might not be as strong as in other Alatriste books, and Pérez-Reverte’s style lacks the gritty realism of, say, Patrick O’Brian, but this is still a ludicrously exciting read by a great story-teller, and the broody, enigmatic Captain Alatriste is worth his weight in maravedìs.