The Fencing Master
By: Arturo Perez-Reverte
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
In Madrid in 1868, fencing master and man of honor Don Jaime is approached by a mysterious woman who seeks to learn the unstoppable thrust, an arcane technique known only to him. All too soon he finds himself in the vortex of a plot that includes seduction, secret political documents, and more than one murder.
Rich with historical detail of a decaying world that agonizes – as does the art of fencing itself – over the ideals of honor and chivalry, The Fencing Master is superb literature and a true page-turner.
So some of you may know that I’m a bit of a fan of Arturo Perez-Reverte; The Flanders Panel (review) is one of my favourite books ever. The Fencing Master was actually the second book I’d read by him, having read The Club Dumas (review) first, but strangely enough I never wrote a review on it. So I decided to revisit the book recently 😉
I find myself really appreciating this book this time around (I originally gave this book 3 stars; I think it was because I found it too slow-moving/simple a storyline). I thought it was very beautifully written; sure, a lot of the dialogue is set up like an informal philosophical debate of sorts, but there’s a lot of lovely quotes and passages throughout the book. You really get a sense of the time period fromt his novel; despite having read a few nonfiction titles on Spanish history, I always feel like I enter a black hole whenever I read about 19th century Spain because I find there’s not as much detail compared to, let’s say, the Exploration period of the late medieval period or the Spanish Civil War of the 20th century. But the book feels quite on point with the politics and philosophy of the time and hooks up quite nicely with other thoughts and ideas that were circulating in Europe during the period.
But with this re-read, I find that this book is more of a meditation on life and the passage of time. Don Jaime is, by all accounts of the period, an old man in this novel but seems like a character out of place in society: he practises a dying art, he’s not very well informed with the current politics and events happening around him (despite a) living in Madrid and socialising with the upper class and b) his circle of friends talk nothing else but politics), and he embodies a sense of honour and chivalry that has long since phased out. Many characters either trust him or use him because of his aloofness, but there’s something admirable in the way he sticks to his beliefs. Through his character there raises a question about the preservation of the old ways, and I think a reflection of where Spain is at in this period of history: at a crossroads between democracy and modernisation and their deep sense of the past. It’s absolutely fascinating.
The story itself was as slow as I remember it to be; the mystery and the intrigue that the premise of the novel talks about doesn’t kick in until halfway, but the first half of the novel does serve as a way of setting up the characters and the ideas circulating throughout the story. Senora Adela reminds me of the main female character in The Seville Communion (Edit: Wait, I didn’t review this novel either? Could’ve sworn I did…) with the air of mystery and seduction; unfortunately in the end I didn’t feel like there was a lot of depth to her character, despite of the reveal of her past.
The plot was pretty straightforward, but nonetheless I found The Fencing Master to be a riveting read this time around; I’m glad I re-read it. I highly recommend it if you’re into historical fiction and character-driven fiction.