Arturo Pérez-Reverte: Freedom andthe patriot

Arturo Pérez-Reverte's latest book is darker than his bestselling swashbucklers. He talks to Elizabeth Nash about war, patriotism and learning from history
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The Independent Culture

Why write? I ask Spain's bestselling author of adventures and historical potboilers. The packed bar in Madrid's Palace Hotel empties as crowds move to an art auction in the next salon. Arturo Pérez-Reverte breaks the hush. "I clarify things. I organise things. I lead a very chaotic life. Writing enables me to reflect on this. It consoles me for the bad things and celebrates the good. It's a form of organising the intellectually disordered baggage of my life."

He sits hunched in the corner of a squashy sofa, his whole body watchful and alert with the predatory instincts that took him through 23 years as a war correspondent, chasing – as he puts it – the scoop. He turned to full-time fiction in 1995, but still carries those years with him, and recycles them in his work. Not to exorcise demons, then? He snorts dismissively. " That's rubbish. Writing's no catharsis. Literature is an analgesic for life's pains, it doesn't remove them."

It's teatime, but he has a glass of cola ("I had a heavy lunch," he apologises), a couple of venerable notebooks in a plastic folder and a large rolled umbrella propped beside him. All the kit he might need for the immediate future. Pérez-Reverte, now 55, cultivates an austere soldierly style even though his days of action are, he says, long gone. "I always have my hair cut very short, my nails clipped." Part of trying to control and organise his material, his life.

Pérez-Reverte bounded into Spain's literary scene in the mid-1990s with his creation of the world-weary swordsman for hire, Captain Diego Alatriste, who strides through Spain's 17th-century golden age, fighting dirty battles, striving to protect his honour and stay alive. This is the Spain of Cervantes and Velázquez, where high art blossoms in a corrupt society run by a stupid and incompetent court. The six adventures of Alatriste, warrior on the battlefields of Spain's collapsing empire, are devoured by hundreds of thousands in a nation which, Perez-Reverte says, has lost touch with its history. Written in the rapid-fire style of classical adventure yarns that inspired the young book-thirsty Arturo, they also pack a devastating critique of Spain's rulers through history, a message explicitly relevant today.

"We Spaniards have the worst political class in Europe, but the finest people on the front line. In my novels I express love and tenderness for those at the bottom, and disdain for those in power. We've always had terrible rulers. An 11th-century Spanish troubadour wrote: 'What good vassals they would be if they had a good master.' That sums up the whole history of Spain. It's our tragedy."

He grasps for an example. "You know the film Master and Commander? When Captain Aubrey tells his sailors, 'This ship is England.' In Spain that would never happen, either in real life or a film. The legacy of Franco has contaminated our idea of patriotism, making it inoperative, contemptible." He envies the British for their historic patriotism, their solidarity in face of crisis. Then he adds, "It's nothing personal. You have to keep a distance, avoid getting too close, taking sides."

As a boy growing up in Spain's southern port of Cartagena, he was inspired by the adventures of Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, not to mention Homer and Cervantes. "Those writers sent me away from home at 18. It wasn't that I wanted to write like them; I wanted to be the hero, the central character. That's why I was 35 before I started writing. I wanted to live it."

Alatriste's adventures are now appearing in English, after Anglophone readers discovered his other novels of intrigue and adventure – The Dumas Club, The Flanders Panel, The Fencing Master, The Seville Communion, The Nautical Chart, The Queen of the South, and now The Painter of Battles (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99), his darkest and sparest book so far.

It tells of an award-laden war photographer, Andrés Faulques, who has spent a long career recording images of horror. Faulques has retreated to a Mediterranean watchtower where he is covering the wall with a huge battle-scene mural. He strives to portray the essence of war he couldn't capture on film. Then a stranger arrives, a former soldier from the Balkans who once provided Faulques with a prize-winning shot, and says he's going to kill him. The two men discover that apparently random coincidences obey an iron logic.

"It's the nearest I've got to a personal memoir," Pérez-Reverte says. "Every novel has its own personality, even though they cover similar terrain. This is very introspective, cold, stripped of adjectives and adverbs, a scalpel on a marble table. It's easy to be melodramatic about war, blood, evil men, excesses of violence and all that, but I wanted to do the opposite. To treat horror as something cold and geometric, like metal." He has produced characters more rounded than hitherto, and the memory of a beautiful and intelligent woman.

War isn't about bad people, the writer says. "It's life taken to extremes. It's a cruel world. I don't separate war from normal life. Those who have lived through war know they are never safe." So life is a battleground? "It's... a dangerous place, full of dangerous animals: us. " He takes my notebook and sketches a curving mountain road, with snipers on hilltops. Whether you are hunter or hunted can change from one moment to the next. "You have to learn the rules." In The Painter of Battles, Faulques recalls an episode when he accompanies a sharpshooter in Sarajevo, photographing him as he chooses his prey, then freezes when his momentary ally tells him he was in his rifle sights two days previously. "I have lived these things. I know," he says.

The problem is, and he shifts forward and touches my arm in emphasis, that people are no longer conscious of the danger of our world. "It's a minefield." He gestures to the handful of drinkers still comfortably installed. "Anyone here could step on a mine. They don't realise. We've always known there are tsunamis in Indonesia, that's why no one built on those virgin beaches. The Twin Towers attack was greeted with amazement, but did no one ever tell Americans about the Trojan horse? The horrors of the war in Iraq? Goya told it all in his engravings. It's all happened before. We pay the price of not learning from historical experience. Centuries ago people were not educated and were taken in. Today there's no excuse for ignorance."

Two years ago Pérez-Reverte wrote an account of the battle of Trafalgar from the viewpoint of a Spanish sailor, a peasant dragged from a tavern to confront the British navy, the world's most powerful seaborne killing machine, with no training, scared rigid, yet acutely aware of the craven inadequacy of his commanders. Cabo Trafalgar is written in a corrosive below-decks Spanish argot that jumps the 200 intervening years whilst exuding the historical stench of that terrible day, a turning-point in European power relations. The book is, he reckons, untranslatable.

Pérez-Reverte has become a specialist in rendering historical language, and spoke on the subject when elected to Spain's Royal Academy in 2003. " You can't write a historical novel with the language of Walter Scott, it would be anachronistic and unreadable. I create a special hybrid language, conserving the aroma of the time but adapted to today's reader. It's a creative way to tell a historical story." In Cabo Trafalgar, the miserable powder monkey draws on unsuspected wells of bravery, knowing defeat is inevitable. That dignity is what he admires in his compatriots. "Spaniards in a crisis... are magnificent." He recalls the Madrid train bombings of 2004, when ordinary folk mounted a rescue effort while politicians flapped.

Pérez-Reverte is freer in his public criticisms of authority than any Spaniard I have met. Is this a perk of success? "I am free," he concedes. "I am economically independent... If I am invited to a prime minister's dinner or a literary festival I can say no. I am proud. I admire that kind of dignity, I try to make it a personal ethic."

I ask what he's working on now. "I'm finishing a novel about the Napoleonic Wars, the Third of May": that day, immortalised by Goya, when the Spaniards who rose up against French invaders in 1808 faced the firing squad. Lots of Goya, then. He smiles. "Very goyesca. He saw war. Goya knew."

Biography: Arturo Perez-Reverte

Arturo Pérez-Reverte was born to a seafaring family in the Spanish port of Cartagena in 1951. He became a war reporter at 22, and for 21 years reported the world's conflicts for Spanish radio and TV and the newspaper Pueblo. He abandoned journalism in 1994 to write fiction full-time. Several of his bestsellers became successful films, before he created Captain Alatriste, hero of a series about Spain's imperial wars, in 1996. The books became a movie starring Viggo Mortensen in 2006. His latest book to appear in Britain is The Painter of Battles (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). He lives outside Madrid, and on his boat near Cartagena.

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