The Fencing Master
1988, The Harvill Press
Translated from the original Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Don Jaime Astarloa is of the old school – a 51 year old, down to earth honest teacher of the art of fencing, not the sport into which fencing is transforming upon the rise of the duelling fireman and the demise of the settling of honour scores by the sabre. It in 1868 and Madrid is rife with political intrigue, talk of coups and revolution. But these topic hold little interest for Don Jaime even though he regularly meets with his other friends at the aptly name cafe Progreso to exchange the gossip of the day over coffee. But his mind is always on his fencing, on writing his definitive book on the subject and on the elusive perfect sword thrust. That is until he finds himself embroiled in a set of viscous murders, an unwitting pawn in a political game.
To begin with I wondered if my lack of knowledge about fencing was going to be a problem in reading and understanding the main character of the book and the whole plot. It is not a sport I am familiar with, I have never seen a fencing match, I know nobody who fences. The terminology was very foreign - in seconde, in tierce, in quart, prime, parry, thrust, lunge etc but they are gently introduced and one soon finds oneself swept along by the storyline. From her entrance it is clear that Dona Adela de Otero is no ordinary Madrid lady and exactly how she will bring death and destruction to Don Jaime’s life we can but wonder, but that she has the money, the looks and the skills to do it we are left in no doubt.
Character wise Dona Adela intrigues, Don Jaime is viewed with genuine warmth as the slightly down and heal, seen financially better days, but still comfortable in his own skin ‘Maestro’, and the reader is quietly pleased he has found good camaraderie with his buddies at the Cafe Progreso. The plot structure is somewhat predictable, but by the time I got to the denouement I had completely forgotten about the introductory italicised section prior to the first chapter and had to go back and reread it. That only served to make it all the most mysterious and thrilling a read.
Pérez-Reverte is a writer of some 12 books, mainly historical thrillers of which this was his first novel. Its the first of his I have read and I am sure to read more.
ashramblings verdict: (3*) Recommended. A satisfying, smooth thriller, competently crafted and executed.