Monday, May 30, 2011

Pérez-Reverte's The Sun Over Breda

In 1625 the Dutch city of Breda surrendered to Spanish forces after a 10 month siege.  Ten years later Diego Velázquez painted The Surrender of Breda.  Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Sun Over Breda is part of the Captain Alatriste series and is an account of the siege.  In typical fashion, famous Spanish figures make an entrance, as the narrator, young Iñigo Balboa, relates how he talked to Velázquez while he was painting it, and early in the novel also helps Pedro Calderón de la Barca save books from a burning library.  At the end of the book, there is even a brief fictional academic essay about which figure in the painting might be Captain Alatriste.

I really like the series (a past review is here), though this particular book will disappoint if you're looking for action.  The plot itself is really the siege, so you already know how that will come out.  But in Captain Alatriste, Pérez-Reverte has created a character that embodies the Spanish Golden Age, with its obsession with honor and loyalty accompanied by a growing recognition that things are getting worse.  The narrative focuses on the sweat, dirt, pain, and perseverance of ill-paid soldiers.

I felt there was also a message connected to current events, about the ability to wage war without seeing it or feeling it (after all, the author was a war correspondent):

He who kills from afar knows nothing at all about act of killing.  He who kills from afar derives no lesson from life or from death; he neither risks nor stains his hands with blood, nor hears the breathing of his adversary, nor reads the fear, courage, or indifference in his eyes.  He who kills from afar tests neither his arm, his heart, nor his conscience, nor does he create ghosts that will later haunt him every single night for the rest of his life.  He who kills from afar is a knave who commends to others the dirty and terrible task that is his own (p. 163).

Appropriate, though entirely coincidental, that I finished reading it on Memorial Day.


Anonymous,  9:56 AM  

As historian JH Elliott had demonstrated in both Richelieu and Olivares, as well as his magnificent biography of Olivares, the foreign policy of Spain was the force to be reckoned with among the struggle of great powers in the 1620s. The contingencies involved tend to be lost on those who take the easy way out and read the history sure in knowing the outcome. Hence facile judgments. Our world today is filled with similarly inane comments about China, USA and decline.

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