Welcome my Mercies to the glorious city of Madrid. Spain, during the rule of its fourth glorious Phillip, lies basking in the last glow of its setting sun. Oh, she is still a wonder to behold; glittering and vain, boastful and proud, but like a healed over, infected sword thrust through the vitals, she is rotting from the inside out.
To look upon her, one could not tell that she is like a used up whore, beset by internal tumours that have wrecked such havoc upon her organs, she is a danger to all that would love her. Does this judgement sound harsh to your delicate ears my Mercies, than perhaps you have not the stomach, nor dare I say it, the fortitude, to withstand the sights and sounds of Purity Of Blood.
Not since the blessed Cervantes and Dumas blotted their last pages, and were called to write in more convivial surroundings by the great God our father, has an author created a hero, an unwitting hero it's true, but a hero none the less, the likes of Diego Alatriste. The good Captain, as he is known to all and sundry though he never earned his commission in fighting his blessed King's wars against the heretical Dutch, first flowed from Arturo Perez-Reverte's pen in the now renowned Captain Alatriste.
Those riveting pages brought to our attention how the fates of the good Captain and the narrator of these events, Inigo Balboa, the thirteen year old son of a God fearing soldier, who left this earth with Diego's promise in his ears to care for his eldest boy, were intertwined. Serving under a misapprehension about the good Captain's position in society, Inigo's mother dispatched him to Madrid, upon his departure from childhood, so that he might gain the advantages that only an officer who served God, the King and Spain, could provide.
It is well known, my Mercies, how the road to Hell can be paved with good intentions, but aside for an unfortunate incident, hardly worth mentioning, in which Inigo was forced to speed a man's journey to his Maker with the aid of well primed pistol, his life has not been so different from that of other boy's his age in the Spain of the glorious Phillip the fourth.
Yes, it is true that his master appears to have made a trio of deadly enemies over the trivial matter of his refusal to kill the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Buckingham, but enemies are stock in trade for a man who earns his daily meat and bread with the sword. Are you shocked my Mercies, to hear that a man of such high quality, who poets have immortalized in verse, is no more then a sword whose services can be acquired by any with sufficient weight in their purse?
You truly live in a different world than that of Spain under her glorious fourth Phillip. Pray, my Mercies, what would you have an ex soldier do to support himself? Beg? Become a servant in the house of some noble who sent him off to kill the heretics while he stayed warm and safe in Spain? Some hidalgo, who has no obligations except to serve his own vanity, and flaunt himself in the streets of Madrid?
I can no more see the Captain standing stiff in a starched footman's shirt, awaiting his master's beck and call, than I can see the Inquisition accepting Jews, Moors, and Heretics as equals. The Captain would be more likely to do without, than make do with that.
Ah, but I have been distracted from my true purpose, an accounting of the events that the esteemed Perez-Reverte so ably narrates in Purity Of Blood. As my own humble skills pale in comparison, your Mercies will forgive me restricting myself to the palest of sketches, as opposed to the finished article painted by the master.
Although Madrid is the centre of the civilized world, and one who tires of her splendour may be said to have tired of the world, it is also true that a change of scenery can be good for the soul. Or, as in the case of the Captain, whom you will remember has attracted a trio of powerful enemies, good for ones health.
It is with those thoughts paramount in his head that Diego has been considering a return to the battlefields of his King to fight the heretics in the Low Countries. (The Netherlands) But, alas, many a hand carrying the cup slips before it reaches the lips of its destination, and this is to be Diego's fate.
For not only is he unable to exercise his abilities in the service of the True Faith, but he becomes wrapped in a web of intrigue at whose centre glowers the evil spider of the Inquisition. Our good Captain's choice of enemies is as estimable as his choice of friends; they too are of the highest rank and a baseness equal to the goodness of those Diego counts among his allies.
What, at first glance, appears to be a risky but honourable venture, rescuing a beloved daughter and sister from the hands of a corrupt and venal priest from a convent, is only one layer of an intrigue whose icing is power over the King and country.
Ah, my Mercies what are we small men to do when caught up in the affairs of the great and powerful? If fortune favours us, perhaps we are able to keep our heads down and escape notice, but other wise we must stand proud and bear whatever is dumped on us. So, when events unfold and reveal that the hand of the Inquisition has been playing the strings all along, and the rescue effort has been doomed from the start, Diego's only recourse is to save his own skin.
But at such a high cost; two of his employers lie dead in the convent yard, the Inquisition seizes the object of the rescue, and most horrifically, young Inigo himself falls into their terrible clutches. There is no means of rescue available for Inigo, and the Captain himself is forced into hiding, dependant upon his friends of influence for any news of his ward.
Without the benefit of history's illuminating light, our heroes are not to know what is truly at the heart of this matter. The Inquisition, and those who have hitched their carts to its powerful team, is intent on eliminating from God's good earth all traces of anything not of the One True Faith. Against them are arrayed more practical men who see the need to temper faith with reason, or risk the ruination of Spain.
It was truly misfortune only that could have made the convent that was the Captain's target that night, one of the pieces at play in the war between the two sides. How was he to know that the Inquisition was planning on using the activities of the convent's priest as ammunition against its protector, their biggest opponent at court?
If one were to try and unravel the knots and weaves in the waft of all the interconnecting plots and intrigues during the reign of our blessed King Phillip IV, your head would be spinning before you found your way to one frayed end. Is it any wonder than that our erstwhile narrator, Inigo Balboa, offers the following description of life in his Spain?
"And the decadence we Spanish were suffering across the world—seeds that produced, and will continue to produce, fields of thistles and nettles—can be explained, primarily, by suppression of liberty, cultural isolation, loss of confidence, and the religious obscurantsim created by the Holy Office. Arturo Perez-Reverte, Purity Of Blood, Putnam Press, 2006 p. 110"
Oh your Mercies, it is a sad period of history that is recounted in Purity Of Blood. One word spoken against you and you disappear with family and friends unable to offer the slightest succour. What defence can be offered in any case against accusations that are indefensible because they have no basis in fact?
What can you offer as proof against an accusation that your great-great-grandfather converted to Catholicism from Judaism? Our poor Inigo is charged with being of less than pure blood, and accused of manifesting Hebraic beliefs. What harm, you are asking yourself, has this thirteen year old innocent done them that they should find reason to condemn him for such a crime?
Oh, you do not know how the minds of these evil men work like I do, my innocents. They seek to punish the Captain for his impunity in defying them by dangling the boy's fate in front of his eyes. They know his pride and honour will torture him, which would in itself give them pleasure.
Alas, that is not all they know. As sure as the sun rises in God's eastern sky every morning, Diego Alatriste will never abandon a comrade, even if it is only to bear witness to his passing. Inigo is the bait that will lure Alatriste into their eager palms.
As the ink flowing from the quill of our esteemed author takes us deeper into the lives of Captain Diego Alatriste and Inigo Balboa our hero comes into clearer focus. Captain Alatriste set the scene and introduced us to the players at hand. Now into the second act, with the introductions made and the relationships decided, more plots are exposed, and characters step out of the background and into the spotlight for clearer viewing.
There is poetry in the stylus of Arturo Perez-Reverte that has not been seen on the pages of books for a good long time. To read this book is to listen with your eyes and enjoy the play of the words in your ear. It is his deft touch, and sensitive ear, that is as much part of the enchantment as the stories themselves.
Those, like myself, who are forced to read these books in heretical English, owe a debt to the radiant translation rendered with the grace befitting a woman of undoubted virtue, Margaret Sayers Peden. Without her efforts, the good Captain's adventures could have been reduced to tiresome exercises in tedium.
If I may be so bold, my Mercies, in this final moment that I have your attention, to make a recommendation, it would be this. Wrap your cloak around your shoulders, place your hat upon your head, ensure your sword and dagger are within easy reach upon your harness, make your way forthwith to a bookseller of repute, and procure a copy of Purity Of Blood. (If you have not managed to read Captain Alatriste yet, shame on you, then of course read it first)
Now my Mercies, I must bid adieu. Perhaps if we are fortunate we will meet some other day to discuss further adventures of the good Captain. That, we will leave for the fates to decide.
(Originally published March 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.