On a recent library genre-book binge, I reconsidered: The Fencing-Master had had good reviews and good sales. I should give PR another shot, at least for the sake of entertainment. I should have trusted my instincts. The Fencing-Master is an intensification of trends I was picking up on before. More after the fold, with spoilers and invective.
The Fencing-Master is set in Madrid in 1868, a time of political upheaval: the industrialist bourgeoisie is conspiring against the throne and against the agitating Republicanist. Not that we really learn much about this conflict except as it furthers the "plot" because our protagonist is a self-consciously anachronistic fencing master, the non-threatening impoverished aristocrat Don Jaime, who venerates all the old traditions of gallantry and honor while remaining entirely disengaged from the world. The "plot" and the historical novel's generic demands require that he have some access to the world of people who care about the real world, so our noble aesthete takes afternoon coffee--seemingly every day--at a cafe where patrons loudly debate politics. These scenes would be purely expository if Don Jaime didn't eventually need to confide in one of the patrons (a journalist) about all those mysteriously important letters that fell into his hands. The journalist is promptly rewarded for his interest in current events by being twisted into an incompetent blackmailer before being tortured to death.
The plot line of the story, such as it is, tells the story of the beautiful and mysterious Senora Adela de Otero, a woman without connections in Madrid who offers Don Jaime three times his usual fee to teach her his secret fencing combination. Don J., being a traditionalist, at first refuses her offer, but then it is made clear that his real reservation wasn't sexist, per se, but rather that he is so devoted to his art that he is unwilling to teach the move to someone without sufficient expertise to use it effectively. Sra de O is champion-material, and so the reader gets a series of scenes in which the two of them practice fencing, with Don J manfully restraining his lustful urges at the sight of her breasts barely concealed by etc. etc.
She asks to be introduced to his other student (a couple of prop students show up once, but they aren't convincing), an important political type, they start an affair, he shows up murdered--with a single epee blow to the throat, sa-ha!--and a body resembling hers turns up mutilated in the river, and Don J is drawn into the fray as an unwilling, noble, vengeful detective. (see the note about the letters and the journalist, above, which in the novel really isn't much more developed)
Sra. de O is of course not dead. She and her beautiful Madonna-like face (in this iteration with a small scar by the mouth!) return to Don J to explain the whole plot. She was led astray by a powerful patron who raised her out of the muck, but by now she has been hideously corrupted. The body was that of her maid--this murder Don J cannot forgive. To make the moral dilemma that much easier, and quicker to resolve, Sra de O tries to seduce Don J, and as he relaxes his attention in anticipatory pleasure, he suddenly becomes aware that she is about to kill him with a hat pin! He kills her, perhaps in the process discovering the Ur-fencing-move he had been searching for.
So what kind of a book is this?It's not noir, which admits the imperfections of its protagonists, exposes systematic social corruption, and maintains some narrative suspense. It's not historical fiction, which usually explains a few things about how recent events shape the lives of the characters.
No, this book is a Gary Stu fantasy. All along you get secondary characters praising Don J's honor, indirectly by revering his anarchronistic dedication. The police detective whose investigation Don J has been obstracting is described as surprised by Don J's honor, honesty, and innocence:
Campillo looked at him as one might look at an exotic curiosity. "I assure you, Senor Astarloa, that you amaze me, word of honor. You really have no place in a country where the national pastime consists in firing a blunderbuss at the first person to appear around the corner, a country where two people having an argument will be immediately joined by two hundred more, who just want to find out what the issue is and then take sides" (205-6).Sra de O pays Don J the compliment of observing that the assassins she had sent to kill him at the journalists' house had left the scene running, terrified and ignominously wounded (did one of the hits in the dark really need to go to the groin?): "They said you fought like Lucifer himself" (227). Even her insults at the last translate easily into praise, once the value-system decoder-ring has been beaten into the reader's skull. The final scene of this self-involved novel puts the central character precisely where he was all along: practicing lunges in front of a mirror with a dead beautiful woman in the background.
The only reason I'll ever read a Perez-Reverte novel again is if his next incarnation of the detached older man seduced by a mysterious and beautiful younger woman happens to work in an industry that piques my interest. The exposition of unusual professions is the only element in his books that has any merit for me any more.