The Beatrice Interview

Arturo Pérez-Reverte

"The story of a sailor without a ship has already been told hundreds of times."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Arturo Pérez-Reverte's novels have melded suspense plots to a variety of unusual subjects, from antique book collecting and occultism (The Club Dumas) to chess and art restoration (The Flanders Panel) to fencing (The Fencing Master). What attracts him to these fields? "A novel is also, among many other things, the pleasure of the person who writes it," he explains through a translator. "There are a number of subjects that interest me, that I like, and since I must co-exist with a story for two years, I try to ensure that it is as enjoyable and interesting a subject as possible for me. I always look for themes that I'm interested in knowing more about. I get a great deal of enjoyment out of dealing with them." In his latest, The Nautical Chart, a sailor who has been officially suspended from his duties spots a beautiful woman at an auction of a 17th-century nautical atlas. He soon runs into her again, and finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient shipwreck and its mysterious contents--for which its various pursuers are willing to go to any lengths to obtain. Readers who enjoy the imaginative way that authors like Umberto Eco or Tim Powers play with history will be sure to enjoy Pérez-Reverte as well, if they haven't discovered him already...

RH: What first attracted you to this particular story?

AP-R: I'm a sailor, with a sailboat I've sailed on for many years. I also collect nautical maps; one day I went to an auction of a nautical atlas from that 18th century, and during the auction I understood that I was beginning a novel.

The sea is something that is very much present in my life. I've lived it and I've read it, and I understood that I wanted to write a novel in which all the books about the sea I'd read since I was a child would be present. I wanted them to be rewritten through the filter of my life, through my memory and point of view.

RH: When did you realize that Nestor, the master cartographer who appears briefly as a character, would also have to become the narrator of the novel?

AP-R: I suppose it was when I read Lord Jim at the age of fourteen. There are some things that are not immediate, that you accumulate over a long period of time, and one day they take shape in something. The story of a sailor without a ship has already been told hundreds of times. It was told by Homer in the Odyssey, and the rest of us have done nothing but repeat it by adapting it to our time, our point of time. I could not write the story of a sailor without a ship while ignoring those books that had been written before, so my narrator had to engage in some byplay with the reader, admitting that we all knew this story had already been told, already recounted, and also saying, "Let's play with it. Let's wipe off the dust and prove that it's possible to play with these old stories." So when structuring the novel before writing it-- because I always have the structure before I write the novel--I decided to include the character of Nestor, the master cartographer.

RH: You must have had fun inventing his career, imagining the books he'd written.

AP-R: Of course they're all false!

RH: Speaking of which, is what you write about the Jesuit sailors true?

AP-R: No, but nobody can demonstrate that it couldn't have been true. That's the crux of the issue: all that which could have taken place, no matter how improbable, is valid in literature. But you have to reinforce your fiction well. You have to study the subject, surround your fiction with a rigorous reality that will make it credible. After you've established the historic framework, then you get on the inside and you very carefully manipulate-- with pinpoint precision--your story elements. You introduce falsehoods, but the total ensemble should continue to appear real. And there are two types of readers: one who falls into the trap, and one who enjoys the strategy of which he himself is a victim.

RH: One of the things people like about your books is the way you combine elements of high and low culture.

AP-R: I'm a person who lives in a time in which both the reader and the writer have lost their innocence. Now, everything is mixed, everything is part of our culture. Sometimes something which is apparently banal can have just as much influence on your development as something which is apparently profound. The modern human being, the modern reader, is part of an immense spider web made up of books, film, television, and music that are so interwoven it's hard to differentiate one element from the other. Everything has already been written, has been filmed, thousands of times.

The work of the writer lies in portraying the vision of his time about those subjects which have already been written thousands of times since Homer and Aristotle. Right now, the writer cannot ignore the audiovisual encyclopedia he and the reader both possess. There are no longer any innocent writers or innocent readers. My books respond to that; they move in that context.

Furthermore, it's very enjoyable to create links between things which are apparently unrelated, say between Mann's The Magic Mountain and a Sherlock Holmes story. A century ago, that would have been unthinkable; now it's not only possible, but necessary. And for a pathological reader like myself, it's also for a lot of fun.

RH: People often try to distinguish your novels by saying you write "intellectual thrillers" as opposed to "pulp fiction," but you unashamedly incorporate elements of the detective genre into your stories, such as an explanation of clues left behind over the course of the story that's pure Conan Doyle.

AP-R: That's just what I've been saying. I take my narrative tools and my tributes, my winks of the eye, from my personal life and from many, many books. But I disagree with the term "genre." The person who sees in my novels simple detective stories is making a mistake, as is the reader who see them as historical novels. Others view them as modern adventure stories. Those three approaches are all false, although they're also true--I don't write genre novels, I write novels that combine all the genres, taking from each that which I like best, that which I find most entertaining, and above all that which allows me to deal most effectively with the narrative problem posed by the challenge of telling a story as I understand it should be told.

In this context, obviously, the signs, the enigmas, the search as an adventure, the deciphering of symbols, are very important parts of the story, ways to get at themes that are much more than a simple detective plot. But they're also only part of the ensemble. As a reader and a writer, for me, Agatha Christie can be just as important as Dostoevsky.. From a certain point of view, there's no border between the two. They're different, but nevertheless they have a wealth of codes in common. To put things like that in touch with each other is a source of joy for me. That's how I understand literature.

RH: What are your feelings about the various film adaptations of your work?

AP-R: There have been films I've liked more, and some I've liked less. But movies are movies, and literature is literature. It's a mistake to go to the movies to see a novel, just like it would be a mistake to pick up a book to see a film. I do not feel myself to be morally linked to the films made from my books. When I like them, I applaud; when I don't, I keep silent.

Those films are only the vision of readers. The director and the scriptwrite have come up with their own vision of the book. Their reading may coincide with mine, or not. But that's what makes literature great--no two readers read the same book, because no two readers are identical. Every reader projects his own life, his own imagination, onto the book, and makes it his own. And the same thing is true for movies.

RH: What have you read recently that you've enjoyed?

AP-R: For a long time, no new book has given me a great deal of pleasure, not even Mason and Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, which I was expecting with a great deal of enthusiasm, because I am a fervent reader of him. Gravity's Rainbow and V. are extremely important novels. But the book let me down. I found it somewhat boring. Perhaps I'm getting too old for Pynchon, or maybe he's getting too old for me. It turns out that the relationships between readers and writers are just like other relationships-- they aren't always forever.

RH: Are you working on something new? And can you tell us anything about it if you are?

AP-R: I don't like to talk much about the books I'm writing, but it's the story of a Mexican woman who travels to Spain and returns to Mexico twelve years later. That's all I'll tell you, except that the elements present in all my novels--adventure and memory, the Mediterranean and Old Europe--will be here as well.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
John Banville | Complete Interview Index | Bram Dijkstra

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan