Nick Owchar is an assistant editor of Book Review

The glint of sunlight off a rapier pointed at an opponent’s heart, the whistling sound as it cuts the air and the litany of elegant-sounding fencing terms--the “parte,” the “riposte,” the “glissade”--are vestiges of a cultural past that Spanish novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte looks back on with envy.

“Fencing possesses a closeness, an awareness of one’s mortality, that is lost in today’s world,” he says. “You had to come close to face your opponent, and you felt the consequences of your actions intimately. Could the same be said of using a handgun?”

Those words might well have come from Don Jaime Astarloa, the aging swordsman who practices this art in an age of gunpowder and six-shooters in Perez-Reverte’s “The Fencing Master,” recently published in English. A tale of intrigue in 17th century Spain, the story places Don Jaime, a man steeped in Old World chivalry, at the center of a murder mystery in the days of the corrupt Bourbon queen, Isabella II. Don Jaime is depicted by the author as an anomaly, an old-fashioned figure who is out of place in his world.


“I admire him deeply,” Perez-Reverte says. “He is a man for whom the word ‘honor’ still means something. To me, his life is interesting as well as instructive.”

The same might be said of Don Jaime’s creator. At 47, Perez-Reverte has been hailed by critics as “a cross between Umberto Eco and Anne Rice.” His cultural thrillers sell like churros in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. The Spanish-language magazine Puerta del Sol has even declared that his name is “on the verge of becoming a universal household word.” Even, to his astonishment, in the United States.

“I never dreamed that my novels would sell here,” he says, accompanied by nimble translator Daniel Sherr on a recent L.A. visit. “I thought my books would be considered too European to attract readers in this country.”

Yet Perez-Reverte has managed to find a niche in the American market for his tales of antique intrigue. He said the U.S. tour to promote “The Fencing Master” would never have happened if it weren’t for rising U.S. book sales and the best-selling success of recent books like “The Seville Communion,” in which religious and real estate interests lock horns over a crumbling baroque church. Now, with a major movie based on his “The Club Dumas” due later this year starring Johnny Depp and directed by Roman Polanski, reaching an even greater American audience is clearly at hand.

His books are strolls through a museum of rare and strange artifacts: Along the way to solving murders, characters are given educations on the medieval rules of chess, the demonic mathematics of the occultist, life as a member of the Catholic Church’s Holy Office (once known as the Inquisition), book-making and forgery or the swordsman’s secret weapon (“the unstoppable thrust”).

“Our countries share a common ground, a common cultural memory, that goes back to the Bible, to Greece, Rome and Byzantium,” he says. “We belong to the same ‘country,’ although the paths we have taken to get there have been different. Otherwise, you’d never be able to read my novels.”


When he speaks of history, Perez-Reverte’s eyes glow behind his owl-eyeglasses. His clothing--corduroy trousers, a polo shirt, an old sweater--is the simple garb of a journalist: plain and functional, just like the reports he once made from around the world. For many years, Perez-Reverte was a veteran war correspondent for Television Espagna. That reputation, he says, generated instant recognition and instant book sales in Europe. In France, his 1990 thriller “The Flanders Panel,” in which an old Flemish painting of a game of chess holds the answer to a 300-year-old murder, sold a staggering 250,000 copies in one year without promotion.

“I wrote ‘The Flanders Panel’ before I went to the Gulf War,” he recalls. “When I came back, I discovered that I had a bestseller.”

What else can explain this kind of success? Has Perez-Reverte made a pact with the devil as Aristide Torchia, a 17th century Venetian printer in “The Club Dumas” did? Perez-Reverte chuckles deeply. He shrugs. His success, he says, has to do with sunken ships.

“Imagine a beautiful blue bay on a bright, luminous day,” he says. “There’s a beautiful sailing ship, you’re at the rudder, and next to you is a beautiful woman. Everything is perfect. But in addition, you know that, 200 years ago, a ship carrying treasure sank and you are sailing over it. Everything--the day, the bay, the beautiful woman--will take on a much richer meaning because of that mystery. There’s always a ‘sunken ship’ somewhere, and I try to include one in all of my novels.”

The blue waters of Perez-Reverte’s “sunken ship” metaphor are also the blue waters of his memory. The oldest of four, he was born to an upper-class merchant marine family in Cartagena, a Spanish seaport town of white houses and thick ancient walls on the Mediterranean.

The town was a wonderland for a boy’s imagination. At least two great empires, the Carthaginian and the Roman, have ruins there. The seeds of Perez-Reverte’s fascination with the cultural past were sown early in this landscape haunted by history. In one childhood memory, he recalls the planting of a tree in his grandfather Arturo’s garden. In went the shovel, out came dark soil. Soon, something else started coming up with the dirt. Slate-like chips. They turned out to be pieces of a 2,000-year-old Roman mosaic. “It’s a very old city. Discoveries like that are common,” he explains.


Cartagena was romantic in other ways as well. Perez-Reverte described cutting class at his elite Catholic school in order to hang out around the docks, intrigued by the ships and the tattooed, hard-drinking fisherman and sailors who boarded them. Another favorite place was his grandfather’s study, with its 3,000-volume library. There he nourished his romantic spirit with the world’s great books, making “lifelong friends” of characters like Long John Silver, Hawkeye and D’Artagnan.

His romanticism found an outlet when he took a job at 18 as a sailor on an oil tanker. Traveling the Mediterranean, observing the tumult in the countries surrounding it, Perez-Reverte soon discovered something even more interesting than a sailor’s life: war. “I discovered that war was a fascinating place for a 20-year-old. I stayed on and became a journalist so that I could justify being there.” He became a hustling freelancer, then a reporter for the now-defunct newspaper Pueblo and then, finally, a correspondent for TVE, where he stayed for 21 years.

His travels sound like a guided tour of hell: Angola, Nicaragua, Chad, Libya, Lebanon, the Falklands, Sarajevo and other infernal regions. He carried bleeding friends on his shoulders; he watched some die in the line of fire; he saw monuments to other cultures wiped out by mortar shells. It was far from his grandfather’s study, from war as he read about it in Tolstoy and Stendhal.

But in the midst of so much suffering, one thing kept Perez-Reverte’s sanity. Books.

“War gives you a certain lucidity to survive, the problem is that it often turns into thick-skinned cynicism. I always traveled with books. I was always reading. Perhaps books are what prevented war from pulling me off the way it pulled off so many of my friends, “ he said.

Eventually, so did writing.

“When I wrote my first book, I had no literary ambitions. I was 34, a real late-bloomer. I wanted to write something for myself,” he said.

The result was a short novel, “The Hussar,” about an infantryman in Napoleonic Spain. It was well-received, but it was with the success of his next book, the Spanish version of “The Fencing Master,” that he realized he could make a living solely as a writer. Though he put off this decision five more years, he said he clearly saw “a cycle of my life ending.”


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Today, Perez-Reverte lives in Madrid in a house not far from the massive Escorial Palace with his wife and daughter. He devotes about two years to writing each book; the University of Salamanca, he proudly notes, even has an academic paper on file entitled “The Implicit and Explicit Literature in ‘The Club Dumas.’ ”

That novel is a complicated story of the occult, murder and the life of Alexandre Dumas. So complicated, in fact, that Polanski has removed all Dumas references from the movie, to be released in December. Even the title has been changed to “The Ninth Gate” (a reference to the final of nine symbolic gates through which the devil is summoned). Perez-Reverte encouraged this, sensing that the film wouldn’t work “if we tried to include everything from the novel.”

At work on his next book, a story of a modern sailor, map making and a genuine sunken ship, Perez-Reverte is living a life he never imagined as a teen playing hooky around Cartagena’s docks. But even though his life’s goal has changed several times--from sailor to journalist to novelist--one thing has stayed constant.

The presence of books.

“Books have played an important role in my life. In fact, I am not really a writer. I consider myself more of a reader who happens to write. If I couldn’t write anymore, so be it. If I couldn’t read, I don’t know what I would do,” he said, “except perhaps commit suicide.”*