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
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
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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