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The Nautical Chart by Arturo Perez-Reverte (trans Margaret Sayers Peden, 2000, Picador 2002) is the second of his novels I’ve read (though I have a couple of others on our shelves). But that other, The Flanders Panel was a good quality crime thriller, while this is something else entirely. It pretends to one thing (the subtitle is: ‘A Novel of Adventure’), but its tone and manner are far different from what pass for adventure novels these days. Indeed in its slow discursive pace, its readiness to be sidetracked, the amount of attention it pays to describing background and setting and character, it owes far more to the Victorian triple-decker than it does to contemporary thrillers. True it has sex scenes, and bursts of rather graphic violence, that would have been out of place in, say, Robert Louis Stevenson (who seems to be Perez-Reverte’s true begetter), but one senses that if Stevenson had been writing now then he would have been as graphic.

Even the basic story — a search for lost treasure — is gratifyingly old fashioned. Our hero, Coy, (a wonderful name for your basic strong, silent type more ready to resort to his fists than to speak), is a seaman temporarily without a ship (since he ran his last ship onto rocks). By chance he meets a charismatic woman named Tanger when she buys an historic atlas at an auction. She works at Madrid’s Naval Museum, but dreams of finding a horde of emeralds that went down in a Jesuit ship off the coast of Spain just before the Jesuits were expelled from the country. In laying out this story there is a lot of fascinating historical stuff slipped painlessly into the novel, especially about the way that in the 18th century different countries used different meridians when it came to calculating longitude, which is why it is so difficult to locate the sunken treasure. With an old friend known only as El Piloto, Coy sets out to help Tanger find the treasure (and if possible break through her frosty hauteur and get into her bed).

The intellectual search to identify exactly where the ship went down, and the physical search as they dive from a small boat are engaging enough, but as in all the best adventures there has to be another ingredient. In this instance there is Palmero, a professional treasure hunter and his frog-eyed henchman, Kiskoros, a former Argenitine torturer, who are after the same horde of emeralds. The story works its way through escapades, daring, betrayals and triumphs to a bloody and downbeat ending that manages to be both predictable and unexpected. Perez-Reverte elaborates a straightforward story with a rich tapestry of character, incident and vividly described places. There is also a curious literary conceit, an ‘I’ narrator suddenly and inconsequentially introduced into the story more than three-quarters of the way through the book, which serves only to give an impression that Perez-Reverte is playing with his readers. but he is playing very skillfully, and this really is an engrossing tale of adventure like they don’t write any more.

First published at Livejournal, 13 February 2004.

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