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Críticas en otras lenguas

The Spanish for swash

GUY FIORITA | The Times - 15/7/2005

Ask a spaniard to name a footballer and he will say Raúl, Beckham or maybe Ronaldo. Ask for a film director and you'll get anything from Pedro Almodóvar to Steven Spielberg. Ask for the name of a famous soldier of fortune, however, and there is only one answer: Captain Alatriste, the swashbuckling hero of the adventure series written by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

In Spain, Alatriste is a phenomenon comparable only with that of Harry Potter here. Ever since the first book about the struggles of this down-on-his-luck sword-for-hire appeared in 1996, Alatriste has become a cult figure, with more than two million copies of the books sold in Spain and another two million internationally.

Today, as well as the five Alatriste books, there are unofficial Alatriste websites, comic strips, board games, figurines and even Alatriste Walks around Madrid. Filming has just ended on a movie version starring Viggo Mortensen. And now, at last, the first book of the series has been released in English in Britain.

Pérez-Reverte is a celebrity in Spain and is the country's best-selling author. A former TV war correspondent, he describes himself as "a sailor and a reader who became a writer by chance". His 14 novels, including The Flanders Panel, The Dumas Club and The Fencing Master, have been translated into 28 languages and there have been movie versions of several, including Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate, and Uncovered (The Flanders Panel). Despite these successes, Pérez-Reverte will always be remembered as the man who gave us Captain Diego Alatriste y Tenorio.

Captain Alatriste, the first of the series, is an adventure novel set in early 17th-century Spain - a time when the mighty Empire was beginning to crumble as a result of disastrous wars and the rule of the inept and decadent Felipe IV. After being wounded in Flanders, Captain Alatriste returns to Madrid to make his living as a swordsman for hire. Alatriste is at once brave, forthright and learned - but also something of a womaniser, a heavy drinker and an assassin.

Which is, of course, all part of his charm. Our hero accepts a commission to give a pair of travellers a scare. It soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary job and Alatriste becomes involved in a political conspiracy that reaches right to the courts of Europe.

Told by his faithful young page, Iñigo de Balboa, Alatriste includes a colourful cast, from the hard-drinking, hard-fighting poet Francisco de Quevedo to the dangerously beautiful Angélica de Alquézar and the feared Inquisitor Emilio Bocanegra.

Although we are fed a hearty diet of swash and buckle, Pérez-Reverte never intended it to be "just an adventure. I wanted to pay homage to the great adventure writers I read in my youth such as Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne and Daniel Defoe. Also, I had noticed that there were things that I thought every European child should know and that were not being mentioned in school. My daughter belongs to a generation in Spain that is losing its historical memory. History is taught less and less, and is being replaced by classes considered more practical, like computer science. So I decided to try to do something to help my daughter's generation rediscover a liking for history."

Pérez-Reverte spent more than 20 years as Spain's star war correspondent, covering every important conflict from the Falklands to the Gulf. The result is a thinking man's adventure novel, where sword fights and tales of derring-do are interwoven with wonderful passages of poetry and gems of historical and cultural information. "The idea is that the book should be fun and exciting, but also make the reader think. I wanted it to be a reflection on the people who build empires. At that time the Spanish Empire was the most powerful in the world. Even the US today is nothing compared with the Spain of that era and I wanted to write a story of the men who went out to fight for the glory of the country only to be betrayed by inept kings, corrupt politicians and religious fanatics. Alatriste is about the tragedy of the soldiers who built the empire."

Be warned, Alatriste is not for the faint-hearted. "When he kills, he really kills," Pérez-Reverte says. "As a writer, I have the dubious advantage of having seen horrible things. I understand violent acts, cruelty, pain and vengeance because I have lived it."

The experience gives Alatriste a frank realism. "I know that under a certain set of circumstances any of us could be raping and pillaging tomorrow," he says. "That is why the good guys and bad guys in my books are always very ambiguous. There is no clearly defined line between good and evil there because in real life it doesn't exist either."

The sixth book in the Alatriste series, The Vengance of Alquézar, is due to be released in Spain next year. In 2007 another is planned. "There will be eight to ten in total," PérezReverte says. "That is, if I'm alive, healthy and still feel like it." Lovers of great adventure everywhere can only hope for all three.

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Foto de Arturo Pérez-Reverte

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