Memorial Day, honoring the military men and women who have died in service to their country, seems an appropriate time to talk about this book, third in Perez-Réverte’s Captain Alatriste series.
The story is narrated by íñigo Balboa, fourteen now, a young guttersnipe rescued by Alatriste in the first book. íñigo serves as Alatriste’s mochilero, an aide or soldier’s page, foraging for food and materiel, delivering water and ammunition to the soldiers. They are in Flanders where Alatriste’s unit has been sent to assist with the siege of Breda. The Spanish Army is trying to put down the rebellious provinces where "the conflict had become a kind of long and tedious chess game." The two sides in this long-running war are delineated more by religion than country, with Catholic Spanish and Italian troops versus Protestant Dutch and English.
íñigo is a good choice for a narrator. Young enough to feel the thrill of battle, his eyes have been opened by his twelve months in Flanders. He describes the mud and the rain, the patched clothes and worn-out boots. Because Perez-Réverte is one of my favorite authors, I was not fooled by the cover promising a swash-buckling adventure; I knew that the story would be more subtle and the characters more complex than that. There are adventures and battle scenes, but we see them through íñigo’s eyes, dazzled as he is initially by the romance, but gradually learning the stoic pragmatism and commitment to honor embodied by Captain Alatriste.
íñigo tells of how the army has not been paid and is near starving, given the way the surrounding countryside has been decimated by the long war. They actually have to mutiny in order to receive some pay, but as with every other activity in Spanish society, there are rules and protocols such that even a mutiny can be conducted and settled in an honorable way. In Alatriste’s interactions with his cadre of close companions, the officers he serves under, and the other soldiers we learn more about this fascinating man who says little and keeps to himself.
In the long stretches between actions, íñigo is learning from the men around him and intersperses his account with tidbits of history and descriptions of paragons of honor. These sidebars slow the story a little, but I appreciated the context they provide.
In the battle scenes, Perez-Réverte gives us a realistic description of warfare Seventeenth Century-style in all its brutality. Armed with pikes and harquebusiers, swords and daggers, this is face-to-face bloodshed, not pushing a button on a computer to launch a drone against a far-away enemy. Confused and horrified as he is by the chaos and bloodshed, íñigo still feels the pride and madness of the fight. Standing over the first man he has killed, all that he has experienced coalesces and he learns what it means to be a man.
I used to work with a man some fifteen years senior to me. When the U.S. launched the first Gulf War, he told me that he wished he were young enough to go. He’d fought in Vietnam, so he had no illusions about warfare, but was still caught up in the thrill of battle. I asked him how he’d feel if his then twelve-year-old son were a few years older and serving in the military. He didn’t have an answer. And it is not an easy question. What I do know is that whether I agree with all of my country’s wars or not, I respect those who fight in them and honor their courage and their sacrifice.