NOVEMBER 2, 2014
ARTURO PÉREZ-REVERTE has invoked two precedents for his brand of historical fiction: Alexandre Dumas and Stendhal. In some of Pérez-Reverte’s books, particularly those that feature the swordsman-for-hire Captain Alatriste, the balance tilts toward The Three Musketeers, and in others toward The Charterhouse of Parma, a novel that depicts the unheroic chaos and confusion of the Battle of Waterloo from the point of view of a naive and idealistic volunteer. In The Siege, Pérez-Reverte uses the same sort of low-angle, non-heroic perspective on a Napoleonic battle, the siege of the Spanish city of Cádiz by the French army in 1811–’12, told from the points of view of a ruthless policeman, a ship’s captain, an engineer, a businesswoman, and a spy.
The Siege, like Stendahl’s novel, is suspended at a moment of transition between the feudal and the modern world. Pérez-Reverte examines the moral and social origins of noir in the dark side of nascent modernity, across the social spectrum of a closed city. The novel begins with the specter of that most modern of criminals, a serial killer: Comisario Rogelio Tizón, the city’s Commissioner for Districts, Vagrants, and Transients, is investigating the brutal torture and murder of a series of young girls, and as the narrative shifts among the characters, we witness other shadowy portents of the modern, as well. Captain Simon Desfosseux, a French physicist and artilleryman, coldly calculates the parabolas that will bring his bombs down onto the civilian population of the town. Gregorio Fumagal is a taxidermist whose hope for Napoleonic victory provides a debased echo of the idealism of Stendhal’s young volunteer. Lolita Palma is the unmarried head of her family’s shipping firm, whose future is dimmed by the loss of guaranteed markets in the colonies, now rebelling against Spanish rule. Only Felipe Mojarra, a peasant and part-time guerrilla, and Pépé Lobo, the ship’s captain (who becomes a corsair, a sort of licensed pirate), seem able to adapt to the looming changes for which everyone is waiting.
And waiting is what all the characters are doing, more than anything else, as if they’re in purgatory, awaiting entry not into paradise but into a modern world they all dread. Almost everything that happens in this adventure novel curiously occurs offstage: Lolita awaits a cargo that will stave off bankruptcy; the corsair lurks in wait for ships to commandeer; the comisario waits for the murderer to attack again; the French artilleryman waits for improvements to his guns that will bring his bombs closer to the heart of the city. Mojarra sees, in a military hospital,
the bedridden men, […] those who stand by the windows or move about the ward like ghosts, propped up by walking sticks and crutches — giving the lie to words like ‘heroism,’ ‘glory’ and other such terms used and abused by […] those who are in no danger of ending up in a place like this.
There is little heroism or adventure in this story, even a duel is a parody of the idea of honor, and the few short conflicts at sea are motivated entirely by financial gain. The Siege is, for the most part, a series vivid scenes in which the characters, in conversations or monologues, try to make sense of their stagnant situation and the future it portends.
The comisario seeks some rationale (or “logic of horror,” as he says) for what is happening in the city, and for the murders in particular. Discovering a link between the bombs and the murders, he muses on the “criminal gravity” of the artillery shells, a description of the parabola of the artillery shells’ trajectory toward the streets of the city that evokes the lethal parabola of the London-bound rockets in Gravity’s Rainbow. As is frequently the case with Pérez-Reverte’s novels, the book is replete with chess metaphors and literal chess games, but it’s a mistake to make too much of this or any of the novels many other recurring motifs and patterns — the parabolas of the artillery shells, a text by Sophocles, the scientific pursuits of the Enlightenment, romantic fiction, and more. All of the characters attempt to find something that will help make sense of their situation and of the world they see looming ahead of them.
That future creeps into the besieged city, and Spain’s parliament, which has retreated to Cádiz, outlaws (temporarily, as it would turn out) the Inquisition, and establishes a constitution. Freedom of the press is declared, with results that cause the narrator to remark that “journalism has become the glorious god of this new century.” But the siege also foreshadows the 20th century’s trench warfare, terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and the shelling of civilian populations by calculating professionals safely at a distance from the destruction they cause.
The substantial social and political detail, from the Napoleonic turmoil to shipboard customs to items of male and female dress, is very important to the texture of the novel. Lolita playfully captures the picturesque essence of the mercantile city: “I love those street corners where you see a painted board with a boat on a blue-green sea, and a sign above bearing the most beautiful words in all the world: Goods from overseas and from the colonies.” But she also sees that the city of her day is a nostalgic backdrop for a new drama: in her family home, with its portraits of ancestors, even Lolita’s own image in a mirror seems to her a “portrait of a bygone era — never to be regained — fading like a ghost among the shadows of the slumbering house.” She is tempted by Captain Lobo’s unsophisticated advances, but is ultimately consumed with the commercial rather than the romantic concerns of a woman fully embedded in the modern world but capable of seeing clearly what has been lost.
The comisario’s modern obsession with patterns linking the murders (and the siege) leads him to look for a modern, scientific murderer who is capable of predicting where the bombs will fall, as if he “could feed all the data […] into a machine that would give you an exact location and an approximate time.” But the solution to the mystery ultimately depends on much more mundane and universal human needs. The novel ends not with the discovery of the killer but with a lie that Lolita tells in a vain attempt to deny her final, grim realization of “the darkness, the terror” that exists “in the hearts of men.” Pérez-Reverte uses the siege of Cádiz to isolate a historical and social moment in which the brand new, enlightened world of modernity already displays a cruel and callous heart.