Reviewed by Paul Carrier for THE WALRUS SAID
Diego Alatriste, a jaded but moralistic Spanish infantryman turned swordsman for hire, finds himself practicing his trade at sea in Pirates of the Levant, the sixth novel in the Captain Alatriste series.
Accompanied by his young but rapidly maturing protege, 17-year-old Inigo Balboa, Alatriste sails aboard a 17th-century galley that is escorting a supply convey, helps capture a pirate vessel and lands at a Spanish outpost in North Africa, where he takes part in a successful raid against a nearby encampment of Arabs.
Then the serious swashbuckling begins, with a deadly series of battles at sea.
In Pirates of the Levant, as in the earlier Alatriste novels, Arturo Pérez-Reverte displays a fondness for the little guy, the rank-and-file soldier, the downtrodden soul who’s just trying to get by with a bit of his dignity intact in a world beset by “a bureaucratic tangle of taxes, corrupt functionaries and diverse other parasites.”
"We Spaniards have the worst political class in Europe, but the finest people on the front line. In my novels I express love and tenderness for those at the bottom, and disdain for those in power,” Pérez-Reverte told the British newspaper, The Independent, back in 2007. “We've always had terrible rulers. An 11th-century Spanish troubadour wrote: 'What good vassals they would be if they had a good master.' That sums up the whole history of Spain. It's our tragedy."
This time out, for example, a battle-hardened Spanish sergeant major stationed in forlorn and forgotten North Africa fights “with the sea at his back, the king in far-off Spain, God preoccupied with other matters, and the Moors only a sword’s length away.” Later in the tale, Alatriste muses that “it’s always best to talk to noblemen . . . when they’ve just been punched in the face.”
As The Independent put it in that 2007 article, Alatriste (who carries the title of “captain” even though he holds no such military rank) “strides through Spain's 17th-century golden age, fighting dirty battles, striving to protect his honour and stay alive. This is the Spain of Cervantes and Velázquez, where high art blossoms in a corrupt society run by a stupid and incompetent court.”
With its Mediterranean setting, Pirates of the Levant introduces Muslim characters to Alatriste’s world, both as friend and foe. While the conventional wisdom among Alatriste’s Spanish contemporaries is that these “Turks” are untrustworthy, he takes a more nuanced view, judging Christian and Muslim alike as individuals, rather than by their religious affiliations.
Thus we meet Aixa Ben Gurriat, a Moor who saves Alatriste’s life in North Africa and joins him when Alatriste, Inigo and a third Spaniard set sail yet again, this time for Malta, Naples and the Levant.
The novel's somewhat choppy pacing in the early going finally picks up in the second half of Pirates of the Levant, giving readers a bracing dose of the heart-in-your throat action that is a hallmark of the Alatriste novels. Sadly, though, Pirates of the Levant is not the best of the bunch.
For one thing, it’s more episodic than the earlier novels in the series, which may appeal to some readers but disappoint others. And Pérez-Reverte fully indulges his penchant for obscure historical and geographic references. That may not be problematic for Pérez-Reverte’s fellow Spaniards, but for Americans, it’s confusing and a bit tiring. Still, Pirates of the Levant captures enough of Alatriste's soldierly nobility to appeal to diehard fans.
Comparisons between the Alatriste novels and The Three Musketeers are inevitable, because of their shared focus on 17th-century derring-do featuring plenty of swordplay, but the similarities are limited. Unlike the camaraderie of Alexandre Dumas’ mutually supportive French swordsmen, Alatriste is brooding and taciturn, a man who, as Inigo tells us, “preferred sword thrusts to words."