World Literature

Arturo Perez-Reverte

 

BORN: 1951, Cartagena, Spain

NATIONALITY: Spanish

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The Flanders Panel (1990)

The Club Dumas (1993)

The Seville Communion (1995)

 

 

Arturo Perez-Reverte. Lalo Yasky / Wire Image / Getty Images

 

Overview

The Spanish novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte may have been aided in his writing career by his popularity as a war correspondent and television personality, but it is his intelligence and literary acumen that have allowed him to remain a best-selling author in his native country and around the world. His novels have been translated into some nineteen languages and have sold more than 3 million copies. Five of his literary thrillers have been translated into English.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Avid Reader of Novels of the Golden Age of Spain. Perez-Reverte was born November 24, 1951, in Cartagena, Spain. His childhood on the Mediterranean coast in the province of Murcia has had a profound and continual impact on his life and writings, a fact demonstrated through his strong interest in scuba diving and long-term sojourns on his private sailboat, where he spends time composing his novels. Another childhood interest that he still maintains is reading; during his youth he read a book every two to three days. From age nine to eighteen, he read thousands of books, with an abiding interest in the Spanish Golden Age of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well as the Spanish novel of the nineteenth century, a time period and genre present in many of his own narratives.

War Correspondent. After obtaining his undergraduate degree in political science and journalism, Perez-Reverte worked on oil tankers in the early 1970s in order to see the world. His time at sea also allowed him to follow to a certain degree in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both of whom had been employed in the merchant marines. After only a few years, however, he switched professions, working from 1973 to 1985 as a reporter for the Spanish newspaper Pueblo, specializing in reports on terrorism, illegal trafficking, and armed conflict. During his years as a journalist—from 1985 to 1994—he worked for Television Espanola—covering wars in Cyprus, Lebanon, the Western Sahara, Equatorial Guinea, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Falkland Islands, Chad, Libya, the Sudan, Angola, Mozambique, Croatia, and Sarajevo, as well as the coup in Tunisia, the Romanian Revolution, and the Gulf War. Twice he disappeared and was presumed dead: once in Western Sahara in 1975, and once in Eritrea in 1977. In an interview with Alix Wilber, Perez-Reverte commented that war ‘‘was a fascinating, passionately interesting adventure for a 20-year- old youth. I discovered horror later, when I started to see that war was not an adventure.’’

Almost all of Perez-Reverte’s novels have war as a backdrop to a critical examination of both Spanish society and human nature in general. His first published novel, dealing with the Spanish War of Independence, appeared in 1986 under the title The Hussar. The Fencing Master (1988), translated from the Spanish in 1998, is, however, the first novel he wrote. Set in the fall of 1868 shortly before the ouster of Queen Isabel II, the plot centers on the fencing expert don Jaime Astarloa, who, having fallen in love with dona Adela de Otero, a mysterious Italian woman desirous of learning don Jaime’s unstoppable fencing thrust, is soon swept up in the world of politics, secrecy, and betrayal. In this novel the author is portraying the society and day of 1868 Spain but embellishing that history with the events that he witnessed as a war correspondent in places such as Beirut, Sarajevo, Eritrea, and El Salvador.

Leaving Journalism. In 1991, Perez-Reverte covered the Gulf War and the war in Croatia. From 1992 to 1994 he was a war correspondent to Sarajevo, experiencing many of the events that he later placed in Comanche Territory: A Report (1994), published shortly after he left his full-time job at Television Espanola. His departure from journalism was not unexpected. As early as March 1993, Perez-Reverte was taking a cynical view of his life as a reporter and program host, once stating at the onset of the Code One Program that he hosted: ‘‘Today you are going to see a really bloody program with all the horror that you can imagine and even more. It is so disgusting that I refuse to watch it. Goodbye,’’ at which point he walked off the set.

By this time the author-journalist had already become something of a celebrity. On January 19, 1993, he had received the Asturias-92 de Periodismo prize for his coverage of the civil war in Yugoslavia, and on November 3, 1993, he received the Premio Ondas for his Law of the Street, a five-year Radio Nacional de Espana program on marginalized members of society. Additionally, in March the movie version of The Fencing Master won the Goya Prize for best adapted screenplay and best original music. Also in 1993, he was selected by the French magazine Lire as one of the ten best foreign novelists.

Further Success with Fiction. With the release of the mulitple-award-winningThe Club Dumas in 1993, Perez-Reverte began something of a roll. He followed up his success with The Seville Communion in 1995 and The Nautical Chart in 2000. Perez-Reverte has continued to published frequently in recent years, even returning to his abiding interest in the sea in Cape Trafalgar in 2004.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Perez-Reverte's famous contemporaries include:

Dan Rather (1931-): American journalist who covered the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Ronald Reagan (1911-2004): The fortieth president of the United States of America, who held office from 1981 until 1989.

Umberto Eco (1932-): Italian novelist who has effectively woven semiotics, or the study of meaning, into the plots of his novels.

Kingsley Amis (1922-1995): British writer known for his satiric novels.

Sandra Cisneros (1954-): Mexican American author who has received acclaim for her representation of young Latinas in America, particularly in The House on Mango Street.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Perez-Reverte was no stranger to the dangers of reporting from the frontlines of wars. Here are some works that analyze the lives of war correspondents:

A Mighty Heart (2007), a film directed by Michael Win- terbottom. This film is Mariane Pearl's recounting of the life and death of her husband, Daniel Pearl, a journalist who was killed when he was investigating a possible connection between al Qaeda and the Pakistani InterServices Intelligence.

The Best and the Brightest (1972), a nonfiction work by David Halberstam. In this work, Halberstam covers the Vietnam War and events leading to it.

Active Service (1899), a novel by Stephen Crane. Like Perez-Reverte, Crane decided not merely to describe his own story as a war correspondent but to recreate his experiences in the Greco-Turkish War in novel form.

 

Works in Literary Context

Arturo Perez-Reverte, one of the leading detective fiction writers of contemporary Spain, has successfully built a career since 1986 with a style that harks back to the historical and pamphlet novels of the nineteenth century. He is also one of the most widely known and read Spanish writers outside of Spain. Often compared, particularly in France, to Alexandre Dumas pere, Perez-Reverte’s works have been translated into more than thirty languages, adapted for the cinema, anthologized, and honored with multiple awards in various countries. Perez-Reverte himself, however, considers his fictions to be simply a rewriting of the many books that he has read and loved in his life, manipulating them in a manner that details the historical implications and cultural influences on the modern world.

Historical Novel? Detective Stories? In a 1999 interview with Alix Wilber, Perez-Reverte stated that he never really wanted to be a writer but that he began to write books after traveling abroad and feeling a desire to bring a sense of order to his world. This desire is also reflected in the characters within his works, characters that cling to their memories or culture in order to survive better in a world that they do not like. While some critics argue that Perez-Reverte writes historical novels, this claim is true only in the sense that he uses history to expound upon the present-day conflicts he has witnessed as a journalist. As he stated in an interview with Ron Hogan: ‘‘The person who sees in my novels simple detective stories is making a mistake, as is the reader who sees them as historical novels.’’ As Jose Belmonte Serrano writes, ‘‘In the magical pot he continues cooking ... History, art, and the Gothic novel.

Intertextuality. Perez-Reverte’s love of and incorporation of history can best be seen in terms of his works’ intertextuality—their reference to other pieces of literature. The Club Dumas is perhaps more intertextual than any other of the author’s works. Perez-Reverte noted to Wilber that ‘‘some students from the University of Salamanca did a paper on the implicit and explicit literature in The Club Dumas, and there were about 500 titles, some of which are cited expressly, others not quoted but indirectly referred to.... I must confess there were some that even I had not foreseen. But I will say that there were others I knew were there, and that nobody caught.’’ This novel is one instance of the author’s incorporation of other texts into his own stories.

 

Works in Critical Context

Arturo Perez-Reverte’s gift at interweaving history and sweeping metaphors to enhance and expand upon the plots of his novels has received near universal acclaim. Those who have disapproved of some aspects of Perez- Reverte’s generally see only minor flaws, however, and typically deem the entire work worthy.

The Club Dumas. Perez-Reverte’s most acclaimed novel is The Club Dumas (1993), translated into English in 1997. The novel revolves around a rare-book scout, Lucas Corso, who is asked to find the last two of the three existing copies of the Renaissance work The Book of the Nine Doors to the Kingdom of Shadows. Margot Live- sey of the New York Times Book Review wrote, ‘‘Mr. Perez-Reverte ...is extremely good on the business of book collecting. Among the pleasures of The Club Dumas is the intimate sense it conveys of this highly specialized type of commerce.... [He] does an admirable job of describing these bibliophiles, as well as of creating works like The Nine Doors, whose illustrations are reproduced and described in fascinating detail.’’ A Times Literary Supplement reviewer reported, ‘‘Readers get, together with a mass of tables, diagrams, clues, decoys, and nudgings about intertextuality... all twenty-seven illustrations, so that they can play spot-the-differences, and draw their own conclusions.’’ The reviewer called The Club Dumas a ‘‘wayward and moderately enjoyable’’ mystery novel. Booklist contributor Brian Kenney labeled the novel ‘‘witty, suspenseful, and intellectually provocative.’’ Although Livesey said she found herself ‘‘growing impatient’’ with some of the plot twists and narrative techniques, she called the book an ‘‘intelligent and delightful novel.’’ The Club Dumas was adapted as the 1999 film The Ninth Gate, starring the American actor Johnny Depp.

The Flanders Panel. The Flanders Panel, published in 1994, is a translation of Perez-Reverte’s 1990 Spanish novel La Tabla de Flandes. It belongs to the genre of postmodern mysteries made popular by Italian author Umberto Eco, but in the opinion of the Times Literary Supplements Michael Eaude, ‘‘Perez-Reverte’s plotting is much tighter and his narrative is more exciting.'' The novel's heroine, Julia, is an art restorer who discovers a murder mystery hidden in a medieval painting of a chess game. The game’s moves are continued in the form of messages and events in Julia's life amid the Madrid art world; gradually, she realizes that she has become a target in a centuries-old mystery.

Discussing the book with reservations about its ‘‘undistinguished’’ prose style and stereotyped characters, Eaude maintained that ‘‘ The Flanders Panel is never boring.’’ The critic commended the way Perez-Reverte worked background material, including chess moves, into the plot, and noted ‘‘a number of shocking twists.’’ ‘‘Above all,’’ Eaude concluded, ‘‘Perez-Reverte makes use of a vivid imagination.’’ Plaudits also came from a reviewer from the London Observer, who called the novel a ‘‘delightfully absorbing confection” and ‘‘ingenious hocus pocus from start to finish.’’ A Publishers Weekly contributor characterized the novel as ‘‘uneven but intriguing.” That reviewer, like Eaude, faulted the characters as underdeveloped and also felt that the mystery was solved unconvincingly and conventionally. The reviewer responded most favorably to the author’s use of chess metaphors for human actions and to Julia’s analyses of the painting, termed ‘‘clever and quite suspenseful.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Read The Club Dumas and then view the adaptation of it, The Ninth Gate. What are some of the key differences between these two representations? In a short essay, combine your analysis of the differences between the two with a few observations on how you responded to each. (Consider which representation was more appealing and why, and why would this be or not be appealing to a contemporary audience.)

2. Perez-Reverte does not establish a specific time for the events told in The Club Dumas. In which time period do you see the events occurring? Can you pick out a few clues that indicate this time period is the intended one? Could the novel actually have a sense of timelessness? What do you think?

3. As a war correspondent, Perez-Reverte has seen and written about many scenes that have left lifelong impressions. What kind of skills do you think a correspondent of this sort would need to be successful at the task at hand? In Perez-Reverte’s writings, is there a particular passage that stands out as more realistic than others because of this? If you were a correspondent today, is there a political hot spot that you would like to cover as a reporter? Which one and why?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Serrano, Jose Belmonte and Jose Manuel Lopez de Abiada, eds. Sobre heroes y libros: La obra narrativay periodistica de Arturo Perez-Reverte. Murcia, Spain: Nausicaa Edicidn Electronica, 2003.

Serrano, Jose Belmonte. Arturo Perez-Reverte: La sonrisa del cazador (La novela y su diddctica). Murcia, Spain: Nausicaa Edicidn Electronica, 2002.

Periodicals

Cruz-Mendizabal, Juan. ‘‘El arte del siglo XV, al servicio de la literatura de suspense del siglo XX: La Tabla de Flandes, de Arturo Perez-Reverte.’’ Murgetana (1996).

Durham, Carolyn A. ‘‘Books beyond Borders: Intertextuality in Arturo Perez-Reverte’s El Club Dumas’ Anales de la Literatura Espanola Contemporinea (2001).

Merlo-Morat, Philippe. ‘‘El folletin moderno: El regreso de un genero decimononico.’’ Revista de Filologia Hispanica (2000).

London Observer, review of ‘‘The Flanders Panel.’’ (July 31, 1994): 5B; review of ‘‘The Fencing Master,’’ (March 7, 1999): 11.