Posted by: koolwine | June 24, 2011

Spain: The Fencing Master

Against the backdrop of Spanish Revolution, a fencing master worries that one of his students may be a murderer.

Country Focus: Spain (España in Spanish)

The Fencing Master
By Arturo Pérez-Reverte (Spanish)
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Originally published as El maestro de esgrima in 1988.
My edition: Harcourt, 1998.  244 pgs.

Acclaim: National Bestseller

Genre: Historical Fiction

Time period: 1868

Summary:  Old-fashioned and non-partisan,  fencing master Jaime Astarloa shuns politics and the modern world, particularly firearms.   His few enjoyments consist of sparring with a womanizing marquis, tuning out his friends’ animated political arguments at the local café, and the search for “a masterstroke, the perfect, unstoppable thrust.”

Then an alluring young woman, Adela de Otero, shatters his routine.  She asks him to teach her his “two-hundred-escudo thrust”, rumored to be impossible to parry.  Astarloa begs off, citing the impropriety of teaching a woman.  She persists and he, impressed by her knowledge 0f fencing sequences (and her beauty), reluctantly agrees.

Maybe Astarloa should have asked de Otero what she planned to do with her newly acquired skill.   He soon finds himself way over his politically uninformed head, mixed up in murder and secret correspondence that threatens the Queen.


The pistol is not a weapon, it is an impertinence.  If two men are to kill each other, they should do so face-to-face, not from a distance, like vile highwaymen.  Unlike other weapons, the sword has its own ethics and, if you press me, I would almost say it has its own mysticism too.  Yes, fencing is a mysticism for gentlemen.

How The Fencing Master reflects Spain:
Location: Madrid
Historical events:  the beginning of  the Spanish Revolution of 1868, also called the Glorious Revolution, which resulted in Queen Isabel II losing the throne
Spanish language: none except for the titles Don and Señora, but does include French fencing terminology
Food: limited to café orders of fritters, hot chocolate, coffee and toast
Culture: the dying art of fencing (although fencing is primarily associated with France and Italy, not Spain)

Would I read another book by Pérez-Reverte: Unlikely, due to personal tastes rather than any criticism directed at the author.  Pérez-Reverte’s mass-market writing style doesn’t appeal to me.   Ditto for mysteries involving political intrigue, especially since my lack of familiarity with Spanish history made the political machinations incredibly confusing.


In my book, or what Spain means to me and maybe you, too:

Take time to smell the flowers
The ending of The Story of Ferdinand baffled me when I first heard it.  Why didn’t Ferdinand want to face off against the matador?  There was something very compelling about a big strong bull who preferred flowers over fighting.  Ferdinand’s endearing pacifism resonated with millions of others as well.  Munro Leaf’s 1936 best-selling children’s book recently received a turbo boost in sales after being featured in the hit movie The Blind Side.


Live from Madrid, it’s a Spanish bullfight!
My family took a trip to Spain in the early 80s.  For weeks beforehand, and up until we were seated in the unshaded stands, all I could think was  “Yeah!  I can’t wait to see a bullfight!  Bulls! Bulls! Bulls!  Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Somehow, my 10-year-old brain had not registered that in a bullfight, the bull dies.  After being stabbed numerous times.  After large amounts of blood have run down the bull’s shoulder and onto the dirt-covered arena.  After I have become horribly queasy and weepy and need to ask  Mom to leave because I am too “hot” [traumatized].

Note to self:  Never again.  Be like Ferdinand and sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers

Don-ting 1,000 page book
My first Don Quixote experience took the form of a high school field trip to see the musical Man of La Mancha.  As the actor playing Don Quixote sang “The Impossible Dream,” I dwelled on my (temporarily) impossible dream – for the show to end.  Our group was crammed into the top of the theatre in the cheap seats.  The stifling heat and blocked view did not make for a positive introduction to Quixote.  However, I did end up  sleeping with him.  “Donkey Hotey”, that is – a stuffed donkey dressed as Cervantes’ hero – the bizarre result of a teen impulse buy.  I could not find a photo of this rare stuffed animal anywhere on the web, so I included Pablo Picasso’s  sketch of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza instead.  An old roommate of mine hung this poster in our living room.  Although Don Quixote has been in my ears, in my bed and on my wall, he has lain forever neglected on my bookshelf.  Cervantes’ classic is one of my husband’s favorite books; he even bought me a copy.   But if he thinks I am ever going to read it, he’s tilting at windmills.

The shadow of a memory
I can tell you that I enjoyed Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind much more than Perez-Reverte’s The Fencing Master but not why.  I liken Zafón’s novel to literary Sangria: it went down quickly and enjoyably, but after that, I can’t remember what happened.  Barcelona provides the backdrop, there’s a rollercoaster of a plotline concerning a mysterious book and…what else?  Umm…uhh…well geez, I didn’t expect…


…The Spanish Inquisition!
Monty Python’s silly Spanish Inquisition skits aired in 1970.  Comedians Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam “tortured” their victims with the (dish) rack, soft cushions and the comfy chair.  No laughing matter, the historical Spanish Inquisition lasted from 1478-1834.  Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada definitely did not pioneer “the comfy chair” routine.  He burned approximately 2,000 accused heretics at the stake.


“God’s architect”
Inspired by nature, Antoni Gaudí’s buildings are more like something you’d find in a Disney theme park than on the streets of Barcelona. They undulate and curve and dazzle with bright mosaic, intricate ironwork and charming stonework.  Deeply religious, Gaudí believed that he could honor his maker by incorporating God’s creation – natural form – into his architecture.  The results are organic and otherworldly.


Next up: Honor Lost: Love and Death in Modern-Day Jordan by Norma Khouri

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