Close to three hundred years before any poppies grew in Flanders' fields men were all ready killing each other, for King, God, and country. In those days the blame could have been placed a little more squarely on the shoulders of the second, as lined up on one side were the Catholic armies of Spain, and opposing them were those who had joined the ranks of the reformed.
The fighting between Catholic and Protestant had outlasted three Kings of Spain and numerous petty princes and monarchs of lesser stature through out Europe, and if the mud in Belgium was somewhat redder then it had been in a previous century it was only to be expected. Under the pretext of protecting the One True Faith, Spain was desperate to hold on to its mastery of the Lowlands (Holland, Belgium et al) while the rest of Europe was just as inclined to assist the Dutch in their quest for independence.
By the time of King Philip the 4th all Spain has left in Europe is her reputation for fierceness and honour. Her soldiers in the field are as likely to mutiny over lack of pay as to obey their officer's orders on any given day. But because of pride and honour these same men will follow those same officers into battle and shed their blood without complaint whether paid or not.
After their adventures in Madrid (as recounted by Arturo Perez – Reverte in Purity Of Blood Captain Diego Alatriste y Tenorio and his ward Inigo Balboa are forced to seek the relative safety and anonymity of serving in Flanders. The situation in The Sun Over Breda, is as the military mind likes to say, fluid. In some places the Dutch and their allies have made inroads in reclaiming their land, but in other fields the Spanish still hold sway.
For all it's pride and vaunted reputation as the fiercest in Europe, when we meet up with Spanish infantry of which Inigo and Captain Alatriste are part of, they look and live no better than beggars. The only foods they eat are what they can scrounge from the surrounding countryside. As they are forbidden to loot the Dutch citizens except in the cases where they are expressly permitted to sack a village or town after its been taken, there is little to be found.
Pay that was meant for them hasn't materialized in over a year, so they lack the where with all to purchase anything. Clothing is patched, boots held together with rags; all that is kept in good repair are their weapons. Swords and daggers still gleam and are sharpened daily. Flints, powder, fuse cord, and musket balls for the harquebus they use with murderous precision are kept dry and safe amid the damp, and cold of Holland where the sun never really shines according to a Spaniard.
Not a one amongst them cares a whit for the King or his corrupt court. Nor do they like those who they serve, although the occasional one earns their respect. Yet when the bugle blows and the drum beats, there they are, formed up against the onslaught of cavalry, musket fire, and pike men all intent on making this their last day on earth.
But for the Spanish foot soldier who has won his country their empire, who keeps the nobility in their silks and fine foods, and whose King has almost forgotten their existence, what remains is their pride in them selves. Not pride in their accomplishments, anyone who takes pride in an ability to kill has no pride in the eyes of men like Alatriste, but pride in being no more or no less than who they claim to be.
Perhaps these were the men for who the phrase walking your talk was invented, save for the fact they never talked about what they did even amongst themselves. "The era of glorious captains, glorious attacks, and glorious booty was now long past…" are the words that Arturo Perez-Reverte gives to Inigo to describe the time during which The Sun Over Breda, the third and latest instalment of Captain Alatriste's adventures to be translated into the language of the heretic English takes place.
Kill or be killed, and if it looks like today will be your last day under God's grace than trying to choose the manner of your return to His embrace is the only ambition of these soldiers of Spain. Nobody can take that away from them; not the Church and their politics; not the nobles and their games; no not even the King, glorious Philip the 4th.
Reverte takes us to battlefields of Europe in a way no other author has ever quite managed. Sometimes we are witness to the horror and onslaught through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy who can't see beyond the noise and the confusion as he vainly tries to keep his master supplied with dry powder and musket balls. At other times we see the carnage through the eyes of Alatriste – and there is no difference.
Men still die and stink of fear; the ground beneath feet is slippery with blood whether you are 14 or thirty-three on a battlefield and you wouldn't be human if you didn't admit your reactions were the same. At one point Inigo remembers the long silences of the Captain on those nights he never slept back in their apartment in Madrid, and he thinks maybe he is beginning to understand where they come from.
When a man has had all his illusions shattered and has nothing left to hold onto but his honour and maybe his faith in God, not the Church but God, he will do things that others mistake for bravery or nobility. What's mistaken as doing your duty for King and country is doing your duty for the country of your soul.
Captain Alitriste is such a man, and the way Reverte has drawn him on the pages of The Sun Over Breda the heroic becomes pragmatic and bravery is just a means of staying alive. One could look at these books as a parable for our times but that would be too blinkered a view. We live in one time, not all times, and the lessons of Alatriste are for all points in history where men's lives have been spent by those who don't care about what happens to them. It's happened before and it will happen again.
Arturo's skill lies in writing these books in the language of the Romantic swashbuckling novels of the 19th century but with characters that act and speak in anything but the Romantic manner. Inigo speaks with the enthusiasm of the wide-eyed fourteen-year-old boy he was at the time of these events, but his words are filtered through the world-weary attitudes of the retired soldier he is when recording them for history. It allows for a narrative full of commentary on the action that further dispels any illusions of romanticism.
Arturo Perez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste series continues to be the wonder it was from the opening line of the first book. I'd be sorely tempted to learn the language of the true faith –Spanish- so that I would no longer have to wait for the translations to appear to enjoy the rest of the series. But that is a battle I would surely lose, and not even the foot soldiers of Spain expect a man to spend his life needlessly.
In Canada you can purchase The Sun Over Bredo either directly from Penguin Canada or other reputable dealers of fine books and literature. Finding the DVD of Alatriste released in North America is another matter all together. A sack of Spanish Gold will reward the first who can bring me news of a copy with English subtitles. By Your Mercies leave, until we meet again.
(Originally posted May 2007)
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.