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From Captain Alatriste to The Nautical Chart, from The Painter of Battles to The Queen of the South, not a single one of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's novels lacks a connection to his life. The readers of El Pais will be able to collect the works of the author of The Club Dumas as of next Sunday, October 3. Twenty-three books. Twenty-three weeks.
The collection will start off with an emblem of his work, Captain Alatriste. In this conversation, which precedes the publication of the complete collection of Pérez-Reverte's books, the novelist and academic, who was also a journalist, explains the origin of his passion for creating novels, for populating the expanse of the imagination with stories that have reached record sales and readers around the world.
How do you feel when such a complete collection of your work is presented?
My books are in the bookshops, so it´s not a question of recovering. What this collection will possibly afford is getting to readers who did not read me before, who maybe were not curious about my books or who for whatever reason hadn´t approached them. They are very nice editions, of good quality, with a lovely design. Beautiful and carefully presented books. Apart from that, it could be that the veteran reader, the one who´s been reading me for a long time, might enjoy having all the books in a big, appropriate and homogeneous format. A collection that looks like one.
What reaction does this grouping of your work cause in you?
They have already showed me the entirety of the collection and my reaction has been amazement. God, I´ve written so many things! A writer works on his next book. The previous ones are no longer yours anymore because you neither read nor revise them, nor do you go back to them. They are moving away, as if adrift in your memory. You only think of the new book you are writing.
If we had to look for a metaphor that would gather the essence of all these books together, what would it be?
I think I´ve been telling the same story for 20 years. In other words, furnishing the same territory. Territory is the metaphor. A terrain, a place that I was defining, first with my own reading, with life, with travels, with relationships, with years (he turned 59 in November)...The metaphor would be "a furnished territory". Each novel is like putting bit by bit one piece of furniture after another in a house that 20 years ago was empty. This collection has forced me in a way to look back, something I hadn´t done before. It has forced me to consider, to contemplate, from the first book, The Hussar, to the last, The Siege. Furthermore they are associated with moments of my life, with my evolution also because the books have been moving along with me. The result equals a life furnished with books.The publicity phrase with which the collection is promoted is Everything in My Life Is In My Novels. And it´s true. They are books that have been born from a way of living. I had the opportunity of living in places that were a bit unconventional. That left me with a way of seeing, and this work is the result of that perspective. I guess it is so with every writer, but this one is mine. I recognize my past through those books. I think that a conscientious reader of my books knows me well. I think I´m one of these authors who is easy to know through their books. There are authors who lie - we all lie, obviously - but there are others who veil themselves more, who for various reasons of strategy, disposition, veil themselves behind their books. Others are transparent and you can know them very well through their books. I think I´m of that group, one of those who are easy to know the way they are. And that conscientious reader who has read all my work that way knows me better than many of my best friends do.
Juan Rulfo said he wrote Pedro Páramo because he wanted to read a book like that. What drives you to write stories?
I'm that kind of author who writes books that they would like to read. And that's what makes me happy. That's what makes professional work and personal pleasure compatible, otherwise, it would be pure work discipline, clocking hours. What makes me go further is that I make the professional obligation and personal pleasure into one thing. I have never been conscious of why I write. I did it because I felt like it, because I had a good time, I felt comfortable, I felt at ease... Apart from that, because from a certain moment on, I lived professionally from writing and it gave me a completely honorable and pleasant way of living.
Now that I look back more calmly, with the experience that years and time give you, I realize that what I was really doing was arranging my life. All the novels, even though they are different from one another, are related to a personal objective, to personal experiences: travels, adventures, jobs, illusions, disappointments, what I loved, what I hated. All of them are settling scores with my own life. It's as if I were arranging my life in episodes. Every published book is a way to calm my remorse, to settle scores -with myself also- to remember, to turn bitter moments into happiness, to look for bitterness in moments that were happy. To live.
You mean that if it hadn't been for those incidences in your life....
I wouldn't be a novelist. Javier Marías is a pure novelist; that's why I always measure my distance from him. By a pure novelist I mean that, from going beyond his own intellectual power, he's generating a singular narrative world. For me, that's what is really praiseworthy. When I tell about adventures, events, tight spots, thrusts, disasters, deaths, fires, shipwrecks, bombings...., I'm limiting myself to remembering. I'm just telling how I remember and which memories that life left to me. In that respect, my effort is more technical than creative. More craftsmanlike than artistic. My creative effort involves using the means that allow combining a reality I already lived and giving it an effective narrative form. To novelize it.
There comes a time in which, between so many battles, shootings, chases, you stop and write The Painter of Battles. What, from the creative and sentimental point of view, does this new, almost melancholy emphasis mean in your work?
In The Painter of Battles, I talk about myself without disguise for the first time. The good thing about fiction is that you can talk of yourself, disguising yourself; you have a thousand pretexts, a thousand hooks to hang your biography on, and no one asks if it's yours because it has enough power on its own. It's easy because you can mix reality with fiction, you can distance yourself from what you are telling, you can invent from the real thing and make it all seem a lie. You can write The Queen of the South saying that you have invented everything and nobody can prove the opposite. Or you can write an Alatriste saying that you are not Alatriste and people believe it, though you may know, deep down, that you have more of Alatriste than you admit to yourself. The Painter of Battles is the only novel in which I have done without that cover, that alibi, that mask. I really have told the wheel of my life, my world, my outlook, without concessions, in a way that's absolutely hard on myself. If there's a reckoning, it's with the protagonist, with my remorse. I made a novel of my remorse, with what, on remembering, left me with open eyes during the night. They were two painful, serious years of ghosts, and it was not an experience that I enjoyed. I would not want to repeat it again, but I owed myself that incursion. It was a way of saying, "Well, I´m also going to clean up things which I don't get into in the other novels, and I´m going to go deep down."
If one looks at all of your work together there's a leitmotiv: solitary and weary heroes. You find them in Club Dumas, in The Drumhead, in The Queen of the South... In all of the books, there is a character to whom a ton of things happen and who generally is alone. Including Alatriste.
Yes, it's true. That is my hero. That is the message that interests me. We're all marked by what we read as children. There's something that had a great impact on me. I studied Greek and translated Anabasis (The Expedition) by Xenophon. And I was marked by that image of the soldier retreating through enemy territory, in a hostile environment, knowing that he has only his shield and his sword to defend himself, and that if he is defeated he will not be able to reach the sea or his home. Knowing that defeat means annihilation. It is the best metaphor of the human condition, of what man really is in the world. That kind of hero is the one who is interesting. Every returning hero is weary. He isn't the same when he goes as when he comes back. When he goes, he's full of vigor, he's young, he's Achilles, he's Patroclus, he's the young man who goes on an adventure, he's The Hussar. But all the heroes who return, after burning Troy, after raping, killing, being inside the wooden horse, being covered with blood and seeing people die, are weary. They only want to return home and rest. And this isn't something I've been told; I've seen it. I myself have felt that way many times. I have been Patroclus and I have been Ulysses.
And you write from that perspective.
I write since I became Ulysses. My narrative reality is the soldier in hostile territory who wants to return home. The weary hero but without faith, illusion: the only thing he wants is to survive. He's like Alatriste; he doesn't kill for glory or for pleasure. He kills because killing, he returns home; he survives. There was a reading of the Alatriste books done by some idiots who obviously hadn't read them: that he's a character who's glorifying imperial Spain, defending the military values of the Tercio soldiers. And it was exactly the opposite. Alatriste is the type who's fed up with all of that: bitter, betrayed, cruel. With a murky and crooked heart. A mercenary and an assassin, who despises countries, kings and flags. The Spain of the 17th century that it describes is more than a little gloomy. I believe that the harshest, most bitter books that have been written about imperial Spain are those about Alatriste.
A weary hero.
All the heroes that I've known in my life were weary. I haven't known any that weren't. I have never been a hero but I have been where they those we call heroes are, and I know how they are; that I know very well. It's very easy to be a hero when you are 20 years old and you believe in country, in love, in whatever. What's difficult is to be consistent and to fight when you don't believe in either country or flags or in anything, in a few friends, a few memories and in yourself. I'm only interested in the hero that fights when he already has no faith, for pride or out of simple habit. The wolf that kills without hunger. The innocent hero is a completely stupid hero.
When you left journalism in 1994, you left a letter early in the morning at the headquarters of TVE... Maybe that letter was a novel...
I don't want to talk much about it, but it had symbolic significance. I am sleeping in bed, wake up and say to myself: tomorrow I'm not going to be a journalist. At three in the morning, I go to TVE, write the letter there, sign it and hang it on the announcement board, send a copy to Ramón Colom and go home. I felt liberated. Like someone who leaves behind a burden that weighs on him and he throws it off. I had already finished writing Comanche Territory, which was like my precautionary good-bye.
This collection is going to reprise your works. Let's go, then, to Comanche Territory.
Comanche Territory was a way of saying: For a long time you have seen what was on one side of the camera that I showed you. Now I want you to see what was on the other side, what you haven't seen, because I have never told you. While The Painter of Battles was a book done for me, Comanche Territory was a book done for the television viewers of that time. Because of that, I play with elements that I supposed they already knew. I assume many things. Later, the book was a steady seller, and young journalists still read it. Let's say it's the chronicle that never went out on the television newscast.
The book that you shove out, so to speak. Then there are books that you control.
Oh, yes. In the others, everything is calculated.
The collection begins with Alatriste. Is that a good way to enter into your work?
It's not the most significant, but it's okay that it would be that one. They begin with something like that because it's the one that has sold the most in the the Spanish language of all my titles. It's one of the most emblematic because he is a well-known character, a series that is translated world-wide, is read in high schools...After ten years and six novels (I'm on the seventh), it carries a weight that would make it normal that editors would want to begin with it. It's not because I made the decision. They proposed it and it seemed fine to me.
How did Alatriste come into being?
I wrote an article at the end of the eighties about the painting The Pikes, in which I spoke about one of the pikes in the background. I've been a reader of history since childhood, so I know that of Spain well. They've always told the story of Spinola and William of Nassau as a story of gentlemen and courtiers, companions. But the one who did the dirty work, the ones who slogged through mud and shit, the ones who paid the price of that painting, is that pike in the background held by someone whose face can't even be seen because it's blocked by - and it's not by chance - the generals, the horse and the flag. Since I've spent my life in the background of those paintings, I know the story of the pike very well, and I know that it is he who really did the dirty work and, sometimes, lost his soul in doing it. I wanted to tell that moment in the history of Spain. They sold us an imperial history, glorious and heroic, that we studied in school. But when you read the fine print, the bitterness that lies behind it, you realize that the real Spain had nothing to do with that; that it was a lie, mud, blood, shit, corruption, ingratitude that they were paid by the same ones as always...
And Alatriste was born...
I decided to tell the story of that "glorious century", with the bitter look of the pike in the background of the painting. And that's how I invented Captain Alatriste. It's a fun exercise, fascinating, but also extremely painful. Now, I'm in the seventh episode, immersed again in what that Spain was, in what we could have been and how little we were, how little we are. Always in the same hands: those of the fanatic priests, the idiot kings and the arrogant, incompetent and corrupt ministers.
The Pérez-Reverte Collection
- El capitán Alatriste (Captain Alatriste)
- La reina del Sur (The Queen of the South)
- El club Dumas (The Club Dumas)
- Limpieza de sangre (Purity of Blood)
- La carta esférica (The Nautical Chart)
- La piel del tambor (The Seville Communion)
- El sol de Breda (The Sun Over Breda)
- El maestro de esgrima (The Fencing Master)
- Un día de cólera
- El caballero del jubón amarillo (The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet)
- Territorio comanche
- La tabla de Flandes (The Flanders Panel)
- Cabo Trafalgar (Cape of Trafalgar)
- Corsarios de Levante (Pirates of the Levant)
- El húsar (The Hussar)
- El pintor de batallas (The Painter of Battles)
- El oro del rey (The King's Gold)
- La sombra del águila (The Shadow of the Eagle)
- Patente de corso
- Con ánimo de ofender
- No me cogeréis vivo
- Un asunto de honor
- Cuando éramos honrados mercenarios