I probably don’t need to admit this here, but I never finished DON QUIXOTE. I started it in high school, I think. I had a tattered paperback copy that I salvaged from the wreck of my grandfather’s library. If I remember correctly, it was a scholarly translation with lots of footnotes that would have made sense if I knew anything about the Spanish language in the medieval period. And that may have been why I never finished.
It wasn’t because I didn’t love Don Quixote or Sancho Panza (I did), and it wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy their adventures (I think I did at the time). It was more that the richness of the language and the depth of the references were well beyond me --- the weakness was not in Cervantes but in my inability to perceive his genius.
I mention all this because THE CAVALIER IN THE YELLOW DOUBLET comes from the same literary tradition, and Cervantes himself appears (albeit offstage) as a minor character. It is the fifth book to feature Captain Alatriste, a 17th-century Spanish rogue in an era when roguery was as common as japery is today. Alatriste carries a sword and uses it well enough to stay alive in trying circumstances. Unlike Cervantes’s Quixote in his self-titled tale, the Captain is no idealistic madman, and the trouble that he gets in is not generated from his own imaginings. But the story is told in much the same manner, complete with the same poetic flourishes and baroque trappings.
And this is by no means a bad thing. Arturo Perez-Reverte does masterful work here in recreating Madrid in the fading hours of the Spanish Golden Age, and he populates his work with such memorable characters as Alatriste’s love-struck squire (who doubles as narrator), a flattering court poet, scheming hidalgos, and an Italian desperado who serves as Alatriste’s nemesis. The plotting is deft and intricate where it has to be, and the action scenes are as sharp and intricate as the Captain’s sword.
But when the swashbuckling is over and the swords (often red with the blood of an unlucky opponent) are sheathed, Perez-Reverte returns, over and again, to a more poetic form. And when he does –-- well, one wouldn’t want it said of oneself, mind you, but one can imagine a typical sort of modern American reader, one not enamored of classical Spanish poetry, who might be tempted to say something such as “Oh, for the love of El Cid, what’s with all the poetry?” (This subset of readers may include those who have read and enjoyed THE QUEEN OF THE SOUTH, in which Perez-Reverte writes about the thoroughly modern topic of Mexican drug cartels and features the more contemporary poetry of the narcocorridos, the folk songs of the drug runners.)
To such a reader (which is to say to most readers), I can only counsel the virtues of patience and persistence. THE CAVALIER IN THE YELLOW DOUBLET may read like Cervantes, but Perez-Reverte’s heroes are far closer to Dumas and Hope in spirit. The sword fighting is frequent, and coupled with hearty portions of romance and high-level intrigue. And Captain Alatriste, if you have not encountered him, is definitely worth your acquaintance --- he is rugged and daring with a stubborn, fatalistic streak. I may not have finished DON QUIXOTE, but I’ll gladly spend time with Perez-Reverte when I can.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on December 26, 2010