The story of Captain Alatriste, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, takes place just a couple years before Dumas's saga of The Three Musketeers begins. The plot turns around the matrimonial negotiations between Charles I of England and Infanta Maria of Spain (sister of King Philip IV). Charles is accompanied on his voyage to Spain to meet his potential bride by none other than the Duke of Buckingham. (Negotiations will fail, and England will declare war on Spain, but that is beyond the timeline of this novel.) But it's not really about them — just as d'Artagnan and his musketeers upstage all the political figures that drive them to action, so Captain Diego Alatriste is the hero battling for the heart and soul of Spain, along with his life.
The Captain's adventures are recounted by his 13-year-old charge, Inigo Balboa, son of a fallen comrade.
They say that Diego Alatriste and he were very good friends, almost like brothers, and it must be true, because later, on the bulwarks of Julich, where my father was killed by a ball from a harquebus — which was why Diego Velazquez did not include him in his painting of the Surrender of Breda, as he did his friend and fellow Diego, Alatriste, who is indeed there, behind the horse — he swore that he would look after me when I grew out of childhood.
There he is!
One of my favourite lines:
It was also the year in which I fell in love like a bawling calf, then and forever, with Angélica de Alquézar, who was as perverse and wicked as only Evil in the form of a blonde eleven- or twelve-year-old girl can be. But we will tell everything in its time.
This passage comes in the opening pages, and we encounter Angélica only a few times, with no hard evidence of her evil, but the novel breaks off with the promise of more, much more, to come.
Everything about this novel — story, characters, dialogue — drips with cliché, but we like it that way. Pérez-Reverte pays (another) homage to Dumas, but putting Spain in the forefront of that turbulent era.
What Golden Age, eh? The truth is that those of us who lived and suffered through it saw little gold and barely enough silver. Sterile sacrifice, glorious defeats, corruption, rogues, misery, and shame, that we had up to the eyebrows. But then when one goes and looks at a painting by Diego Velazquez, listens to verses by Lope or Calderon, reads a sonnet by Franciso de Quevedo, one says to oneself that perhaps it was all worthwhile.
And this is to me one of the more interesting, and highly effective, aspects of this novel: Pérez-Reverte often invokes Velazquez and quotes the poets regularly, as if to say, "I'm not making this up. Look at the strength of character, or pain, or humour, conveyed in the tilt of that head. Velazquez saw it. Listen to the hiss of swords and the honour of men already told by great literary figures. It is the heart and soul of Spain that other men have already borne witness to. It really happened this way."
Some of the images that add colour:
The fact is that a wedding between the young heretic and our infanta — who was no Venus but was not all that bad, if you go by how Diego Velazquez painted her a little later, young and blonde, a lady . . . with that very Hapsburg lip, of course — would peacefully open the ports of commerce in the West Indies to England, resolving the burning problem of the Palatinate in favor of the British. That is a story I do not choose to go into here, because that is what history tomes are for.
My lord and king, the fourth Philip, was known to be an elegant horseman and a fine shot, an aficionado of the hunt and of horses — once, in a single day, killing three wild boars by his own hand but losing a fine mount in the process. His sporting skills were immortalized in the paintings of don Diego Velazquez, as well as in poems by many authors and poets such as Lope de Vega or Franciso de Quevedo.
But no one paid much attention to him. Despite his friend Fonseca's recommendations, don Francisco de Quevedo had not forgotten that the minute the young artist reached Madrid, he had painted a portrait of Luis de Gongora, and although he had no reason not to like the youth, he meant to purge that capital sin by ignoring him for a few days. Although the truth is that don Francisco and the young Sevillian were soon as thick as thieves, and the best portrait we have of the poet is precisely the one that the same young man later painted. Over time, he also became a very good friend to Diego Alatriste and to me, but that was when he was better known by his mother's family name: Velazquez.
At the time of my story, Angélica de Alquézar must have been around eleven or twelve years old, and she was already a promise of the splendid beauty she would become, beauty of which Velazquez himself would give a good account in the famous portrait she posed for sometime around 1635.
I cannot pinpoint a painting of a woman that meets the clues in the text. A Young Lady was painted in 1635; Portrait of a Lady to my eye is a better example of "splendid beauty" though it was painted a couple years earlier; neither subject has the golden curls and blue eyes of our Angélica. Perhaps the next book in the series will paint a clearer portrait.
The second Alatriste novel, Purity of Blood, was released early this year. Three more will become available in English over the next 3 years. I can't wait!
The movie, Alatriste, is compiled from all 5 books (trailer).