Sunday, January 4, 2015

Book Review: The Siege, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

The Siege, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

English translation by Frank Wynne

Random House, 2013

594 pages

Arturo Pérez-Reverte writes intellectual thrillers. I bought his latest, The Siege, to read during the Christmas holiday. By way of reviewing it, I'll present a series of quotations from the book and let you decide on that basis if this is a book you might like to read. (N.B., a more conventional review is here.) 

Who is staring at the corsair?
Lolita Palma dismisses her maid, who walks off with the packages toward the Calle del Baluarte and stands, staring at the corsair as though it is now his turn to make the decisions.
Here are three opportunities to learn what a mesa camilla is:
page 68: The drawing room is cozy, with shuttered windows that overlook the Alameda, carved wood chairs and sofas upholstered in damask, a mesa camilla—a table with a small brazier underneath—and, set against one wall, a piano no one has played for eleven years.

page 281: The center of the room is taken up by a mesa camilla—a table with a heater underneath—on which stands a brass candlestick....

page 316: "...already people are having to light the little braziers under the tables known as mesas camillas."
How's this for a very long fragment:
Leaning against the wall, his slightly battered summer hat, white straw with a black ribbon, tilted slightly forward; one thumb hooded into the pocket of his waistcoat, his other hand gripping the bronze handle of his cane.
Before this, I don't think I'd ever before seen a two-colon sentence in a professionally edited book:
The bootblack, who shines shoes in the center of the city, is one of his informants: pimps, prostitutes, beggars, drudges, barmen, maids, stevedores, sailors, coachmen and sundry petty criminals: pickpockets, highwaymen, watch thieves, fingersmiths, and cutpurses.
There seem to be some verbs missing:
This is the moment when casual confidences are made, fleeting conversations, meaningful glances; seemingly banal details which, when reconsidered in the calm of his office, with the list of registered foreigners in local inns and boardinghouses, decide his daily routine. Dictate the day's quarry.
How do you confirm that someone is fifteen just by looking at their face?
He hopes that this is how it was, that the girl was unconscious the whole time. Fifteen years old, he confirms, kneeling down and bringing the lantern closer so he can study her face, the glassy half-open eyes gazing into the nothingness of death.
Concerning a woman whose face resembles a colorless liquid and who is also suspicious of chickpeas:
He comes around the counter and Tizón leads him to the back of the shop near the sacks of chickpeas and crates of dried cod. The woman eyes them suspiciously, her face like vinegar, her ears pricked.
In each of these cases, ask yourself whether the writing would be better with or without the text that I have set off with square brackets: 
Lolita cannot forget his firm, tanned hands; his chin, though freshly shaved that morning, already showing signs of dark stubble. His thick hair and long whiskers, bushy but impeccably trimmed. [Masculine.]
Lolita Palma barely recognizes in him the gentle, shy young man who visits her family. The subject confers on him a self-assured dignity, an old-fashioned gravitas. [Authority.]
They stare at each other a moment longer, silent once more. [Studying one another.]
The quiet walks through the countryside, collecting and identifying plants with old Professor Cabrera, [who taught her about botany].
His [filthy] black fingernails poke through his [threadbare] gloves. (As well, the adjective "filthy" appears twice on this page and once on the next.)
When the captain puts his head above the parapet again, he sees several soldiers carrying the screaming artilleryman, the stump of his thigh—[the rest of his leg has been blown away]—gushing blood.
It is a city whose physical form—the streets, the squares and the buildings—Rogelio Tizón can no longer see; he sees only a mysterious terrain, menacing and abstract as a fretwork of whip marks[: that same disturbing tracery he glimpsed on the skin of the murdered girls, and which he recognized—or thought he recognized—in the map Gregorio Fumagal says he burned in the stove of his workshop].
"Yes," Pépé Lobo says, [thinking about Lolita Palma]. "Back to Cádiz."
Not so silent then after all:
there is a silence, broken only by the distant thunder of battle
Not much of a trump card then after all:
His trump card tonight is the professional sangfroid of a man accustomed to danger—something, Lobo knows, that is equally true of his opponent.
Doing everything, it seems, but actually dancing:
Despite the ban on dancing out of doors—a fine of ten pesos for men and five for women, according to the latest municipal edict—people are out of their balconies throwing water and bags of powder on passersby or out in the street in animated groups, playing guitars, bandurrias, trumpets, whistles, and rattles. 
Can you read his face, or can't you?
Insolent little shit—he can read the words in Tizón's tight-lipped expression—I hope I have the opportunity to settle the score with you.

I only hope, thinks Pépé Lobo, that I never have to play cards with these two. It would be impossible to tell their hands by looking at their faces.

A pileup of clichés:
It is as if he is pounding his head against a wall....
The time has come, he thinks coldly, to pay someone a little visit.
He has a strong, aquiline nose, like the beak of some bird of prey....
The strong aquiline nose recalls a bird of prey.... (Both bird-of-prey descriptions refer to the same character.)
...forced to serve as auxiliaries to a Navy which, like the Royal Customs, they would ordinarily avoid like the plague...
Like a thoroughbred racehorse impatiently champing at the bit....
A sentient cape:
...the thick, brown mire through which the skirts of his cape trail carelessly.
There is also some nice language in the book. Here are the passages I noted:
Though it is hot outside, in here it feels cold, as though the hallway leads to a different season of the year. 

A confrontation in a tavern; a character who has been drinking exhibits dangerous calm: Maraña's pulse has not quickened, Pépé Lobo notices; it is as regular as that of a snake sleeping in the sun. He has just taken a deep swig of aguardiente and replaced the empty glass precisely on the ring of moisture he had lifted it from a moment before.

After visiting a wounded man in a military hospital: Mojarra picks up his cloak, his gamebag and his hat, walks past the rows of straw mattresses and leaves the hospital, fleeing the horrors hidden in the folds of the flag.

A character gives money to a beggar, a crippled navy soldier: Then he slips a hand into his pocket and takes out a duro on which the head of old King Carlos looks off somewhere to the right as through all this has nothing to do with him.

They have stopped by the city walls, next to the first trees and the stone benches on the Alameda. From here, the bay seems like a gray, cold, gently rolling extension of the square.

For the most part these men are smugglers and the sort of port rabble who sign a roster or a police confession with a cross.

A character seeking redress in a government office: He remains standing, since no one offers him the chair that languishes in a corner: it has been put there deliberately, to make sure that those who enter do not sit on it.

Every man is a slave to what he says, and master to what he leaves unsaid....

Her words, as melancholy as the violet light fading on the bay, quavered with an age-old tremor from down the centuries; the keening of a woman in an ancient city looking out over the sea wall.
I have to confess that I modified the first quotation. In the original, it reads as follows:
Though it is hot outside, in here it feels cold. As though the hallway leads to a different season of the year.

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