Duels before Drama

The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (Putnam, 2009).

The latest installment of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s addictive chronicle of the adventures of Captain Diego Alatriste begins with a duel. Nothing to be surprised at, since the series is set in 16th century Madrid and the hero is a cynical soldier of fortune, quick to take offense. But Alatriste is in a hurry because he wants to catch the first act of Tirso de Molina’s latest play. Quickly dispatching his opponent, he arrives in time to see the stunning acress Maria de Castro take the stage.

In The Cavalier with the Yellow Doublet (the title sounds better in the original Spanish), it follows inexorably that he will fall in love with her, and this affair will ensnare Alatriste in a deadly cat-and-mouse game, leading to a confrontation with rival swordsman Gualterio Malatesta, who has sworn to kill him. All this is told by Alatriste’s protege Inigo Balboa, our not altogether reliable narrator, who has an intrigue of his own with the beautiful and evil Anjelica de Alquezar. As Inigo notes,

“Whenever a beautiful woman is involved, there is no madness into which a man will not fall, no abyss into which he will not peer, and no situaion of which the devil will not take full advantage,”

All these characters will be familiar to the readers of the previous book, The King’s Gold. There are no surprises here, but it makes no difference. At the top of his game, novelist Pérez-Reverte has as sure a touch with historical detail as Alatriste with a dagger. He lovingly describes Madrid in the twilight of the Spanish empire, ripe with decadence and corruption, where virtues “had almost all gone to the devil.” Yet “no nation had given birth to so many men of genius at any one time…” In addition to Tirso de Molina, we meet the baroque poet Francisco de Quevedo; Lope de Vega, considered Spain’s Shakespeare; and even King Philip IV, Alatriste’s rival for the affections of Maria de Castro.

It’s all great fun, whether for the lover of history or fast-paced literary swashbuckling. The Alatriste novels have found an audience in the U.S. and are gradually being translated into English. Although Inigo makes vague references to Alatriste’s death in battle, he manages to survive here, so we eagerly await his next adventure.

Eric Garcia