on October 3, 2003
This novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte is something of a departure from his other books. Instead of a book set in modern times where the story connects to the past, this story actually takes place in the past, back in 1868 when the Spanish monarchy was on its last wobbly legs. The protagonist and title character is Don Jaime, a fencing master in Madrid who has had most of his life defined by the art (he insists on calling it that rather than a sport) and by his conception of honor, which was probably old-fashioned when he was a young man, and is now sadly outdated. He has killed men in fencing duels, and had to flee Spain as a result, living for years in exile in France (there's no explanation in the plot, at least as far as I could see, for his rehabilitation so that he could live in Spain again) and learning from a master fencer there.
In Madrid, he teaches fencing mostly to young boys whose parents are wealthy, well-born, and spoiled. He has several adult students, however, and one in particular, a dissolute libertine of a nobleman who enjoys the passtime of fencing. Don Jaime's only other social contacts consist of an unofficial social club who meet daily at a local restaurant and argue about politics, society, and so forth. These arguments provide (as one of the other reviewers pointed out) exposition for the political turmoil of 1868 Spain, which would otherwise be obscure to most.
Into Don Jaime's fading world of honor and dignity steps a woman. She is (of course) gorgeous and turns out to be intelligent and (naturally) a wonderful fencer also. Don Jaime takes her on as a pupil, at first reluctantly, and begins to simultaneously fall in love with her. But things go awry, the bodies begin to pile up, and Don Jaime, in the middle of things, is in some trouble because while he's very skilled with a foil, he's basically a babe in the woods when it comes to political intrigue.
This is a very good novel, full of layers and textures, as all of Perez-Reverte's novels are and do. The plot is a bit more obvious than in some of his other books, and has bits and pieces of plots from other detective novelist, borrowing from Agatha Christie and Mickey Spillane with no compunctions. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it
on August 30, 2003
Arturo Perez-Reverte makes me wish I could read Spanish. That is - possibly - the only way his works could get any better. I've read all of his novels that have been translated into English, and "The Fencing Master" is the one that grabbed me by the lapels, so to speak, and dragged me into 19th-century Madrid. I must say I was not inclined to put up much resistance.
The story centers around Don Jaime, an antiquated fencing master, one of the last of a dying breed in an age where the pistol is gaining popularity as the means civilized men use to kill each other. Don Jaime lives his life according to a personal sense of reality, one that revolves entirely around the concept of honor. He realizes that he is a fossil, and that others may look at him as an aging dandy, but he does not mind. In fact, he hardly notices the outside world at all.
Until one day he is summoned to the house of a beautiful young woman, who demands to know the secret of the unstoppable thrust (Don Jaime's personal invention). And nothing in the fencing master's world is ever the same again. To give the story away would be criminal, but rest assured intrigue, politics, and mystery abound.
Mr. Perez-Reverte has done his usual prodigious amount of homework, and Madrid in the late 1860's springs to life from the page. I probably know even less about fencing than the average person (my information comes solely from period-piece movies), and the sword fights described kept me awake long into the night. Even week nights. The final bout is a masterpiece of suspense and beauty, an illustration of the age-old struggle between good and evil, hope and despair. My only niggling question is, how did the beautiful young woman acquire that enigmatic little scar at the corner of her mouth?
In short, a fantastic read.
on January 20, 2011
Perez-reverte has an excellent portfolio. The Club Dumas was a mystery enhanced by the world's underground commerce in ancient texts, and characters out of ancient romances. In The Fencing Master, he relates the story of an aging (50) fencing master barely surviving off the teaching of noble numbskulls, a mysterious femme fatale looking for a fencing lesson, and a twisted plot of revenge, all set in an unsettled period of Spanish history.
The story is told through the eyes and mind of Don Jaime, who is long resigned to being a bachelor, and a member of the genteel poor. Although his body is slowly failing, he is still the best fencing master in the city, and knows several excellent and little-known thrusts. The femme fatale, Adela de Ortero, approaches him to learn such a thrust, and eventually, spurred by poverty, lust, and her unexpected fencing expertise, ... Although the plot is relatively predictable, that's not the purpose of this book. Perez is, as usual, an expert at evoking a mood, an era, and the internal uncertainty of an ordered mind. The era is the death of Spanish classicism, including the art of fencing, and the revolution of 1868. No, you don't have to know the history to enjoy the story, just bask in it.
The language is deceptively simple, whether it is the author's or the translator's. It drags you into the story and keeps you there. Yes, it takes a few minutes to get used to the language, but by the second chapter, the rhythm is well established, and becomes part of you.
This is not Stephen King. Climb in and enjoy!
on June 8, 2004
I have not read any of the author's other books, so I cannot compare, and really that's not very fair. I was under the impression that this was a thriller but the book really felt like a romance to me.
Not that that's all bad, but nothing seemed to be happening until about page 150. The premise: old fencing master is approached by a mysterious and beautiful female student to learn a "secret" but deadly fencing move and lust and deceit ensue. I couldn't help but picture Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Wait, they already did that movie.
The story is more than a little predictable, but that didn't stop me from enjoying it, mornings at my local coffee shop. I have to say that the motive in the book was lost on me, maybe if my Spanish history was better. It didn't help that my knowledge of Spanish Revolution of 1868, the back drop of the novel, is zero. Seeing that Pérez-Reverte is a native of Spain, his core readers may have been better in tune than I.
The Fencing Master is such a simple, straightforward book that it is difficult to say much without giving much of the story away. Though predictable, it was an enjoyable read and it was nice to read an international best seller for a change of pace.
Oh, by the way from Fencing.net's glossary: Foible: the upper, weak part of the blade.
For more details, go to aj.huff.org. Thanks.
on September 2, 2003
I already had The Fencing Master on my shelf after having loved Pérez-Reverte's The Club Dumas (which is about antiquarian book dealers, and is much better than The Ninth Gate, its film adaptation--despite the presence of Johnny Depp). So, after finishing The Orchid Thief, I picked it up to read as well. It's a story of mystery and intrigue involving Don Jaime Astarloa, the local fencing master, who lives in a reclusive mansion and concerns himself with little other than his chosen occupation.
That is, until a mysterious woman--Doña Adele de Otero--asks him to teach her his secret, unstoppable fencing thrust. Don Jaime is distraught. Teach a woman a gentleman's sport? Never! But she turns out to be quite proficient and he gives in, but not before he falls in love with her.
This sets into action a chain of events that will end up with at least two people dead before it is all worked out. Pérez-Reverte is excellent at this sort of intrigue and I was glued to every page, even as I was absorbing the art of fencing.
Now, due to reading The Fencing Master, I want to learn how to fence.
on March 30, 2003
Here is a tale of an aging fencing master in mid-19th century Spain, a man out of sync with his times, barely aware of the political turmoil swirling around him or of the changing fashions and world in which he lives. Devoted to his arcane medieval art of swordsmanship, in an age of pistols and crass commerce, he lives in a museum-like apartment, sustaining himself by teaching fencing to a few less-than-promising students, the sons of the lesser nobility. Himself a commoner, he is the picture of the faded gentleman, a man more suited to the nobility than many of those who are his social superiors and to whom he must defer.
Without family or real friends (excluding a few local cafe acquaintances with whom he has little in common save loneliness and a sense of marginalization), the fencing master observes his own slow physical decline and is acutely aware that his best years are behind him . . . his future but one thing: the inevitable loss of bodily strength and skill with the blade (which, alone, sustains him materially and spiritually). At the end of his lonely trail lies a sojourn in a hostel for the aged, attended by the nuns, until he breathes his last.
Forseeing his own inevitable decline, he is no less aware that the art he espouses, no longer esteemed in the society in which he lives, will fade, like him, to a shadow of its former self, the more so as men of his ilk pass inexorably from the scene. And so, the old "maestro" devotes himself, in these fading days, to a book he is composing, a master work on the art he loves, and to developing the one thing that will, in his estimation, leave a real mark and make that work worthwhile, setting it apart from hundreds of other fencing treatises: the description of his hoped for grail, the "unstoppable thrust". But this, the ultimate fencing technique he longs to discover and document, eludes him, as it has throughout the preceding 30 years of his life.
One day, as he struggles with his few students and his manuscript, a mysterious young woman, new to Madrid, summmons him to her apartments and presents an unorthodox request . . . that the maestro take her, a woman, on as his student. Astonished and confused, as much by the alluring charm of his petitioner as by the inappropriateness of her request in a still conservative Spain, the maestro wavers . . . drawn to a youthful and mysterious beauty that awakens in him old dreams and remembrances. And yet he bridles at this proposed violation of those venerable traditions that are the one consoling constant in his life.
But the lady isn't quite what she seems and her purpose in soliciting the special lessons is hidden from him because of the confusion her raven black hair, smooth skin and brightly blue eyes stir in his heart. And so he is charmed enough to entertain the idea . . . a step that will have seismic repercussions on the small and carefully ordered world of his life.
This tale, of a noble soul on the edge of that abyss which awaits us all, is moving and perceptive. As the old maestro succumbs to a brief revival of his youthful spirit, he is sucked into a vortex of intrigue and murder and will face what will prove to be the most dangerous duel of his professional life. In this he loses and finds himself again.
Although the second half of the book bogged down a bit with the details of a somewhat cryptic correspondence, the power of the book's insight into a man's final and most deadly challenge more than offset this apparent loss of dramatic focus. I have read few books as good as this one. I almost feel honor bound, myself, to move a whole slew of other books I have reviewed here down a notch in my estimation just to make room for this one.
on November 1, 2002
A brilliant work of fiction, though hard to pigeonhole.
Is it a crime mystery? A love affair? An exciting historical intrigue?
If Athos in The Three Musketeers had been a poet, this is the type of story he would have written.
The protagonist is a romantic older Spaniard (Shades of Quixote!) once renowned as the best swordsman in Europe. Time has passed him by. In the 1860's swordsmanship is becoming a quaint relic. In fact, it's turning into a sport.
This is anathema to the master, a former duelist, who is a purist to the core.
In some ways he is a Christlike figure, in this world but not of it. A bloody revolution threatens the country, but what has that to do with his art? Like Cyrano, he is incapable of being pragmatic: "Among the many vices I am proud to say I do not have is common sense."
All of which have brought their logical consequences. As the story unfolds, he is teaching a small group of students, barely making ends meet. He has neither family or friends, and fears the inevitable decay which time will bring him , now that his last hope has dwindled, to die "properly" in battle.
He treasures the lingering memory of at love affair,long past and the joy of his art, but it is not much to keep him going, not much of a life.
The master is not embittered, merely resigned to his fate and settled in his ways. This is the set-up to the story
Then SHE enters. The beautiful and enigmatic young woman, who appears to be quite deadly with the blade herself.
She seek instruction. Or so she says . . .
The plot accelerates exponentially with a fury through all manner of twists and turns. Yet Reverte manages to keep the bittersweet and poetic tone throughout the novel.
Here, as in "The Seville Communion" , he is at the top of his form.
A good, good story.
on July 22, 2002
Although this is the fourth of Pérez-Reverte's book to appear in English, it actually predates The Flanders Panel, The Club Dumas, and The Seville Communion. Originally published in 1988, this earlier book is an entirely historical thriller set in Madrid in 1868 amidst Spain's September Revolution, which apparently heralds the end of the monarchy as plots abound and the Bourbon Queen Isabella II is rapidly losing control and influence. One of the novel's flaws is that this period of turmoil is so chaotic and confusing that, although the reader knows the political machinations and plots will somehow prove integral, it's presented rather tediously and is hard to follow. On the whole, the prose is not nearly as rich and accomplished as in his other books.
The story follows an aging fencing instructor, Don Jamie, whose personal code of honor defines him as he attempts to live outside the "real" world around him. He is a rigid and exacting "maestro" to the few remaining pupils he has (guns have all but supplanted swords), and an amusingly old-fashioned expert to the wealthy nobleman he spars with every day. His only other human contact is with a group of yammering men who gather every day in a café to argue politics-and whose main function is to deliver the political background the reader requires to understand the rest of the story (although as indicated above, their arguments are not very effective in this).
Don Jamie is a portrait of a faded gentleman, with all his best experiences behind him, he almost revels in his self-constructed persona of a man of honor (and little else). When a beautiful woman comes to his door and demands instruction in the male-only art of fencing, it catapults him into a dark intrigue. It's another flaw of this early Pérez-Reverte work that readers will see what's coming almost from the moment she first steps onto the page, and only the details need to be revealed. Indeed, those who have reader his intricately plotted other books, will likely be disappointed by the relative simplicity of the story. What is perhaps more intriguing are the timeless questions raised about honor and its role in a world where honor means little. Don Jamie's disengagement from the world around him has tragic consequences, so is he a failure for clinging to tattered ideals, or should he be lauded for his commitment? In that sense, this book has a more moral center than any of Pérez-Reverte's others.
One other minor flaw is the lack of a fencing glossary or any diagrams. The terminology of fencing and its maneuvers are so integral to the story and so arcane to most modern readers that the publisher does both the book and the reader a major disservice by not providing any supplementary material. For those with access to a video store with a good selection of international titles, the book was made into a film in Spain called El Maestro de Escgrima.
on February 25, 2002
What a gem of a book! This is a splendidly original, elegantly written, period thriller that is near impossible to put down. The tale is set in 19th century Madrid, a time of political instability and intrigue, against the backdrop of rumored coup plots against the Spanish queen. Don Jaime Astarloa, a proud, aging, master fencer and teacher, practices his noble art which he sees slowly losing its place within aristocratic society. He is approached one day by a beautiful yet mysterious young woman who requests that he take her on as a student. Though reluctant at first to instruct a woman, Don Jaime soon discovers that she is a skilled fencer. The mystery surrounding her grows, however, when she abruptly discontinues her lessons after learning an arcane yet deadly technique that only a select few fencers can perform. Soon thereafter, a series of murders takes place that forces Don Jaime to question whom he can trust and whether he himself is safe.
The Fencing Master combines a gripping plot, elegant prose, and intense, powerful descriptions of fencing duels that may at times leave you breathless. Think of the grace and beauty in Hemingway's depiction of bullfighting in The Sun Also Rises, and you may have some sense of how masterfully Perez-Reverte has captured the essence of the art of fencing. With each turn of the page you will feel transported to a different time and place. The stylish prose and authoritative narrative voice fill this novel with an authentic period feel. And each sentence conveys an understated sense of strength, pride, honor, integrity, and passion that make this book and its hero simply unforgettable.
on February 7, 2002
I really liked the ending of the book. It was a satisfying ending - especially with its 'hero/good guy' being the one who comes out alive and victorious. I own another book by the same author, The Club Dumas, but I haven't read it yet. I hope when I do get around to reading it that the same vivid, full descriptions are used. At the conclusion of the book that I read, I felt if I closed my eyes I could see the very scene that was being described for me.
Further, the parts of the book that deal with the hero (the fencing Master), and his extraordinary student (who is a female) prove the author to be a very subtle and keen man. He easily catches the moments and miniscule feelings that truly show how such a man as the Master would have reacted. Indeed, how many of us men would react.
I laugh as I write that. Many women will immediately add their comments that 'Yep, we know how men will act!' But the charm of the Master is that he is an older man - in his fifties. He is also chivalrous and convinced of the life that he leads. He speaks disdainfully of guns (a new thing during the time this novel takes place) because they are for cowards. He refers to fencing as a beautiful art - but a martial art. He rebels against the tendency to study fencing to be graceful or as a hobby.
The novel runs through many politics at the time, not necessarily true to history. I didn't "get" much of what was being said with that. Mainly, because it isn't my area of interest, I guess. And it doesn't matter that I didn't, because our dear fencing Master has a solid disinterest in the politics and newspapers of his country as well.