The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sep 16, 2007


Those of us who grew up on the fantastic adventures of the Musketeers (both on paper and on the screen), Brigadier Gerard, Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Kayamkulam Kochunny and other kalaripayattu exponents from the Ithihyamala, would be cheered by the exploits of Erast Fandorin and Captain Alatriste. For these, we have to thank Boris Akunin and Arturo Perez-Reverte.

Fandorin, in his early incarnation, is not really a swashbuckler. A stuttering and astute detective in the 19th century with a tragic life, he tends rather to parody various genres of detectives that solve cases from espionage, closed-room, to serial killers and grand conspiracy. But as the series progresses, he learns the Japanese martial arts and becomes fiendishly strong, agile, springy and buckly. Women, attracted by the air of grief and tragedy that surrounds him, invariably fall in love with him, but he, courteous and chivalrous, allows none to come close to him.

Truer to the spirit of Dumas's heroes is the Spanish gallant, indigent tercio and consummate swordsman, Captain Alatriste. His story is narrated by his page, Íñigo Balboa, and covers the period of Spanish history in the 17th century when its glory days were behind it and its long decline was beginning. Alatriste, although a fairly humble man, has friends in courtly places and equally exalted enemies, and the six novels (in Spanish; only the first three been translated into English) tell of his honour and pride, his skills and his loyalty and (of course) his loves. The prose is appropriate to the times, flowery, bloody and evocative. The action gallops from old Madrid and the Inquisition to the bloodbath of the Eighty Years' War in Flanders, from gold-laden galleons of the Indies, to the corsairs in the Mediterranean. Femmes fatale of incredible beauty and wickedness stalk his and Balboa's footsteps at every turn, poets and counts fight duels on his behalf, and the feckless King Philip II presides over a waning Spain.

There are films based on Akunin's books, which have proven immensely popular in Russia; and Viggo Mortensen, fresh from his Numenorian role in the Lord of the Rings, stars in the Spanish Alatriste. I think it is time I got these on DVD and sank back on the divan for a weekend of swords, capes, and twirled moustaches.


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