I won’t attempt a review of The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet, the fifth book of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s “Captain Alatriste” series, which is set during the decline of the Spanish Empire in the early 17th Century. Instead, I’ll note in passing that I fully concur with the Amazon customer who says, “The only problem with the Captain Alatriste series is I end up gobbling up each new installment in two or three days and then have to wait another year and a half for the next to come,” and I’ll supply a passage that I think conveys the sense and atmosphere of the tale and of the whole series while underlining some possible relevance to the political interests that normally concern us here.
For some justification on the relevance claim, let me quote John Steele Gordon at Contentions from just last Monday:
Watching the United States go the way of 17th-century Spain, with its power to defend its interests crippled by debts it can’t pay and its enemies emboldened by its weakness, won’t be boring. It will, however, be tragic for all mankind.
The comparison is one I’ve found myself bringing up, too, though its timely appearance makes me wonder if Gordon isn’t also a Captain Alatriste fan who also just finished The Cavalier. (As for broad comparisons of 17th Century Spain’s predicament to that of 21st Century America, one place to start for background might be Wedgewood’s classic The Thirty Years War.)
The passage I promised is from an extended description of a visit to the Queen. Typically for the Alatriste books, our narrator, who has already been slipped a mysterious note by the court jester, provides some illustrative verse (here from Quevedo, also a protagonist), then turns without pause or transition from historical musings to matters of the heart:
Here lies virtue, rough as sin,
Less rich, ’tis true, but feared the more,
With the vanity and dreams it’s buried in.
In the times I am describing, virtues, assuming always that they even existed, had almost all gone to the devil. We were left with nothing but the blind pride and lack of loyalty that would finally drag us into the abyss; and the little dignity we retained became the province of a few isolated individuals, or else appeared on the stages of our theaters — in the poetry of Lope and Calderón, and on the distant battlefields where our veteran troops were still fighting.[…]Each nation is as it is, and what happened in Spain happened. Yet, since we all went down in the end, perhaps it was better like that, with just a few desperate men salvaging the dignity of the unspeakable rump — as if it were the tattered standard from the Terheyden redoubt — by praying, blaspheming, killing, and fighting to their last breath. And that, at least, is something. When anyone asks me what I admire about this poor, sad land of Spain, I always repeat what I said to that French officer in Rocroi: “Count the dead.”
If you are gentleman enough to escort a lady, wait for me tonight at the Puerta de la Priora when the angelus is rung.
And that was all the note said; there was no signature. I read it several times, leaning against a column in the courtyard while don Francisco chatted with a group of acquaintances. Each time I read those words, my heart started pounding in my breast. During the time that Quevedo and I had been in the presence of the queen, Angélica de Alquézar had displayed no particular interest in me. She sat surrounded by her whispering companions, and even her smiles were subtle and contained, although, having said that, her blue eyes did occasionally fix on me with such intensity that I feared my legs might buckle.
For that assignation at the Puerta de la Priora, among others, and for all the “praying, blaspheming, killing, and fighting to their last breath,” you’ll have to get the book. You won’t really “ruin” the series if you start it in the middle, though, if you like this kind of thing at all, you won’t regret starting it from the first book, and have plenty of time before the next English language translation appears in print.
Note: I’ve been thinking of making book reviews and discussion a regular feature, and was inspired by some exchanges at the tail end of a comment thread to make a start. My plan is to note titles as I read them, and whenever possible to provide at least a brief comment or perhaps a striking passage. Time permitting and relevance justifying, I’ll also try to provide full-length reviews. I’ll include Amazon links because I think they’re informative and practical, and especially because I get around 6% commission (!) on any sales they (more or less) directly lead to. I invite other ZC authors to follow my example, if so inclined. If any of you would like some tips on setting up your own “affiliate” accounts, and on dealing with some (annoying) formatting issues, let me know.