It’s 1868, the year of Spain’s Glorious Revolution, and Don Jaime is appalled at the rise of guns in Spanish society. He considers them dishonorable weapons and symptomatic of a wider cultural malaise.
In The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte, Don Jaime, a fencing instructor, is an old guy set in his old-fashioned ways. He disdains politics, having no more use for monarchists than revolutionaries.
The book is a murder mystery but also a character study of ethics and honor. The result is a cross of suspense and existentialism that few writers can pull off without making the genre seem disjointed.
Don Jaime’s home resembles a museum. He displays his blades everywhere, and trains students mercilessly in a dying art form. He wants to keep alive illusions of perfection and pure sacrifice, as if there ever was (or ever is) a golden age of ethical values.
He justifies his isolationism with some interesting philosophy. For instance, when accused of being lonely:
“Loneliness has a kind of fascination; it’s a state of egotistical, inner grace that you can achieve only by standing guard on old, forgotten roads that no one travels anymore.” (p. 77)
Unfortunately, his superior attitudes don’t help much when he’s suddenly ensnared in a web of political conspiracy and murder, and must solve a puzzle involving treasonous letters between government officials.
The fight sequences are thrilling, though sometimes blurred by esoteric descriptions. I sure as hell didn’t know how to visualize a “thrust in quarte” or a “parry in octave” or a “lunge in tierce.” But it didn’t really matter; I still got the gist of what was going on in the duels.
Then there is the femme fatale. Deadly seducers can be cliche, but Doña Adela de Otero is used brilliantly. It’s impossible to predict her motives as she trains under Don Jaime, challenges his philosophy in unsettling ways, then up and vanishes, re-entering the narrative when you least expect her to.
The Fencing Master shows a man holding to rigid codes of honor. Don Jaime’s is a futile protest against progressive tides sweeping onto Spain, but a noble one, and a gesture that left me pondering the way people reinvent the past to shield themselves from cultural evolution.
About Loren Rosson
Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.