Monday, May 06, 2002
The Fencing Master
I shouldn't delude myself I can go into a bookshop without coming out with a book. And the blog was an impetus towards the acquisition of this one - "I can blog about this," I thought. It's The Fencing Master, by Arturo Perez-Reverte, Spain's version of JK Rawlings, only he writes for grownups - literary thrillers. I had actually seen the film of this book in Leeds. It's set in Madrid, 1868, in a time of political upheaval, which the main character is doing his best to ignore. He's a 56-year-old fencing master, an aescetic dedicate at the end of his prime - skill and experience having carried him far beyond his physical peak. But he is aware of the nearness of old age, and aware that his skills, dedication and honour make him an anachronism. He is eking out a living teaching the scions of the nobility, and the occasional noble, such as the engaging, dissolute Luis de Ayala, and pursuing his own holy grail, the unstoppable thrust. He has devised a move that is - if not quite unstoppable, a highly effective attack - and is prepared to teach it to chosen people, for a sum of money. Enter Adela de Ortero, an accomplished fencer and a beautiful woman with a scar beside her mouth, and a glint of cruelty in her eyes. Initially resistant, he agrees to take her on as a pupil, and to teach her the move. And his arid, aescetic heart begins to soften. Then Luis de Ayala asks him for an introduction to her; the introduction is effected; Luis becomes troubled and asks the fencing master to keep some papers for him; and then he is murdered, and the fencing master recognizes the mark of his own technique.

The fencing is described in technical language. I sat gesticulating with a soup-spoon over lunch, working through the moves - once I had grasped that quarte and sixte needed to be reversed. I presume that was a reflection of the convention of the time rather than a mistranslation, since it would be a rather glaring error to make, rather like getting right and left switched. It made me think, though, about the challenges in writing a sport or a martial art: how technical does one get? While I appreciated the technical terminology, because it left me in no doubt what was happening, it would go right past a non-fencer. Dave Duncan took a different approach in his King's Blades series, by giving all the various moves their own, local names. So that nobody knows what he means! I enjoyed the King's Blades series for his wicked "take" on Henry VIII and his wives and chancellors in the first book, and the splendid Durandel, who matures from a blockheaded young blade to an elder statesman, quite believably. And the equally splendid Malinda in the third book (Sky of Swords), who is wrong-headed and error-prone and eventually facing defeat, but never, ever quits - I was reading it at the same time as I was reading another fantasy, which I never finished, because the powerful heroine spent the first third of the book in a coma and was just so inert that she never made any mistakes until she suddenly got it together at the end ... but I digress. I should think about how Gelacks talk about fencing. So far I have just approached it descriptively, but I might take a shot at a scene where 'Tatt is retelling a particularly exciting tournament, gesturing with the silverware and knocking over wineglasses.

The Fencing Master is not the best known of Perez-Reverte's novels. I've taken The Seville Communion out of the library: someone has hacked into the Vatican computer system and left a message on the Pope's own computer, asking the Pope to pay attention to a "church that kills to defend itself", a small church in Seville slated for demolition, with the property developers and bankers circling avidly. Two men have died "accidentally" in the church, one falling from scaffolding, one crushed by falling masonry. A career priest, Father Quart, a shrewd, ruthless, polished skeptic - not an innocent - is sent to investigate. I think you'd enjoy the hacker. I did.

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