The Literary Underground
Spain has produced some of the most renowned writers of all time. They have written some of the most beloved literary works, including one of the most revered and studied books in the world of literature, Don Quixote. The book was written by Miguel de Cervantes who is widely regarded by both readers and pundits as one of the, if not the greatest writer in the Spanish language. The passage of time has not dimmed Spanish literature which, despite challenges, kept illuminating. In the contemporary, five Spanish writers have been recognized with the Nobel Prize in Literature, widely considered as one of the pinnacles of success in literature. Meanwhile, the modern landscape of Spanish literature has been shaped by writers like Javier Marías, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Sónia Hernández.
Born in 1951 in Cartagena, Spain, Arturo Perez-Reverte is another Spanish writer who established a name for himself. A close friend of Marías, he first worked as a journalist. For over two decades, he even worked as a war correspondent (1973 to 1994), covering wars and unrests in places such as El Salvador, Croatia, Chad, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Bosnia. In the interim, he worked on his novels, debuting his first novel in 1986, El Husar, a story set in the Napoleonic Wars. He juggled writing with his duties as a war correspondent. While he kept his occupation as a journalist, it was after leaving his life as a war correspondent that Pérez-Reverte’s literary career started taking flight. His debut novel was warmly received but it was his post-correspondent works that have earned him global recognition.
Among Pérez-Reverte’s most popular works is The Dumas Club. Originally published in Spanish in 1993 as El Club Dumas, the novel followed the adventures of Lucas Corso. Living in Madrid, Corso is a middle-aged antiquarian book dealer who also formed a habit of acquiring rare books. On the sly, he was a literary detective. he has seen it all. An unscrupulous collector and businessman, he earned a reputation for going above and beyond what his clients require, even if it requires going above the law, in order to fulfill the requests of his clientele, an interesting set comprised of the rich and the privileged from different parts of Europe such as Milan, Paris, London, Barcelona, and Lausanne. “Corso was a mercenary of the book world, hunting down books for other people. That meant talking fast and getting his hands dirty:”
“In essence, games are the only universally serious activity. They leave no room for skepticism, wouldn’t you agree? However incredulous or doubting you might be, if you want to play, you have no choice but to follow the rules. Only the person who respects the rules, or at least knows and applies them, can win. Reading a book is the same: you have to accept the plot and the characters to enjoy the story .”~ Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Dumas Club
The story opened with Corso approaching Boris Balkan, a prominent book expert and literary critic who “once translated The Charterhouse of Parma“. It was through him that we get our initial impressions of Corso who approached him to help him authenticate a draft manuscript he was recently presented with. This draft manuscript was Le Vin D’Anjou (The Anjou Wine), the forty-second chapter in French writer Alexandre Dumas’ beloved literary classic, The Three Musketeers. Through his friend, Flavio La Ponte, Corso was commissioned to investigate if the copy on his hands was the real McCoy or was a mere forgery. The previous owner of the manuscript was Enrique Taillefer, a publisher who claimed his own life. The Anjou Wine, however, was not the only manuscript he was going to investigate nor was Taillefer the only death in this work of mystery fiction.
After he started investigating The Anjou Wine, Corso found himself summoned to Toledo by Varo Borja, to his surprise. While Coros was a renowned literary detective, Borja, on the other hand, was an eccentric and wealthy collector. He wanted to avail of Corso’s services after he obtained a copy of De Umbrarum Regni Novem Portis (Of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows, “The Nine Doors”). The book was published in 1666 by (fictional) writer Aristide Torchia and was based on the Delomelanicon, or Invocation of Darkness, a work believed to have been written by Lucifer. It is also believed that the book contained instructions on how to summon devils, thus, resulting in Torchia’s condemnation by the Inquisition and his eventual execution by burning at the stake in 1667. Corso’s task is to investigate three copies of the book; it is believed that only one copy of the book survived and that the other two were elaborate forgeries. It is now up to Corso to investigate which one was the original. With the prospect of a high paycheck, Corso agreed.
Corso’s double investigation leads him to different parts of Europe. From Madrid and Toledo, he found himself in Paris and Lisbon. He also met an eclectic cast of characters, including the Ceniza Brothers, experts in book restoration and with vast knowledge of forgeries; Victor Fargas, another renowned book collector who has been disposing of his book collection; and, Replinger, an antiquarian and Dumas scholar. He also met an equally interesting set of female characters such as Liana Taillefer, the widow of Enrique Taillefer who outrightly insisted that Corso’s copy of Le Vin D’Anjou was a forgery; Baroness Ungern, a socialite and philanthropist who owns the largest occult collection in Europe; and, “Irene Adler”, a mysterious girl who Corso encountered on his way to meed Fargas. Fargas and Baroness Ungern were the owners of the second and third copies of The Nine Doors.
At its heart, the novel is a book about books. Because of the subject, the book was rife with literary references. Different books from different time periods were mentioned. Makarova, one character, has named Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Richard Adams’ Watership Down, and Patricia Highsmith’s Carol among her top ten books. Other literary classics referenced in the novel are Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. There were also mentions of a papal bull (Pope Innocent VIII’s Summis desiderantes affectibus) and of nonfiction works such as Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionis celestium (1566). Among this extensive list of titles were titles that were the products of Pérez-Reverte’s imagination.
“It’s because I’m alive, she’d say afterward, laughing, her eyes still wet. Because I’m part of the rest of the world and I’m glad I am. Films are for everyone, collective, generous, with children cheering when the cavalry arrives. They’re even better on TV: two can watch and comment. But your books are selfish. Solitary. Some of them can’t even be read, they fall to bits if you open them. A person who’s interested only in books doesn’t need other people, and that frightens me.”~ Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Dumas Club
By the title alone, it is safe to conclude the book’s most extensive discussion was surrounding Alexandre Dumas. A list of all his works even occupied two pages of the book. It comes as no surprise that The Three Musketeers, perhaps his most popular, was one of the central themes of the book. There were discourses on Dumas’ creative process in coming up with the book and the book’s merits. Characters from The Three Musketeers were repeatedly mentioned and discussed in the story; there was even a portion that was akin to a character study. The Dumas Club, on a whole, was an extensive study, a book review of this beloved classic. The novel was also, in a way, a character study of Dumas the writer. Adding a layer to the story were discourses on the mysteries and conspiracies surrounding his personality and his works.
The novel was built on literary connections and references; they were everywhere in the story. The novel was populated with literary scholars, rare book collectors, and antiquarians. Even the friendship between La Ponte and Corso started with common interests in reading, particularly Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Literary characters were also mentioned in the novel, the most direct reference of which was Irene Adler of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who coincidentally lived on Baker Street. At the start of the novel, Roger Ackroyd of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Books and other literary references were ubiquitous. This wealth of information made the novel a smorgasbord, a feast that any devout book reader would be absorbed by.
There were too many literary allusions that it can be easy to forget that the novel is a work of mystery fiction. The wealth of information, however, did little to obscure the mystery. Pérez-Reverte reeled the readers in Corso’s adventure that took him to different parts of Europe. The tenterhook and the sense of adventure were evocatively drawn by Pérez-Reverte’s writing. There was an atmosphere of tension hanging heavily in the air, as the underworld of rare books unfolded. With the immersion into the world of literary symbolism and mystery, the novel evokes the works of Umberto Eco, maybe even Dan Brown or Pérez-Reverte’s countryman Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Nonetheless, the novel stands out on its own.
As the novel moved forward, a different form of mystery started to unfold. It is the mystery of our own obsession with books, as portrayed by the fascinating underground world of rare book dealerships. Our interest in books at times, go beyond the contents of the book. The more that we are engrossed in a book, the more that we get interested in the physical process that resulted in producing a book, including the end product. We feel the binding and even let our olfactory senses be seduced by the smell of books, especially those that have been stored for a long time. Pérez-Reverte was astute enough to weave into the narrative details of the bookbinding process.
“Military strategy is as sirky as ltierary strategy. Listen, there are no innocent traders anymore. Each overlays the text with his own perverse view. A reader is all that he’s read before, in addition to all the films and TV that he’s seen. To the information supplied by the author he’ll always add his own. And that’s where the danger lies: an excess of references may have caused you to create too many opponents, or an imaginary opponent.”~ Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Dumas Club
The novel even indulged the readers with the intricate process of spotting forgeries. By a stroke of genius, Pérez-Reverte commanded the readers’ attention by accentuating the novel with three sets of nine plates of images contained in the book The Nine Doors, with each set belonging to the three book collectors. It has become incumbent upon Corso to round out the differences. Spotting the differences, Corso has deduced, would help him determine which copy of the book was the original and which was fake. It was akin to a game of spot the differences and Pérez-Reverte took the readers through the entire process.
Corso loomed large in the narrative. He was a shady character but he was also intelligent, efficient, and quick-witted; his personality moved the story forward. While he was a finely conjured complex character, the same cannot be said about the novel’s female characters. Descriptions of women were mainly limited to their physical attributes. There was a repeated description of Irene’s green eyes and the way she smelled. The novel was also a classic case of “it’s not about the destination but the journey”. After regaling the readers with details and pieces of information about books and the publishing process, the novel started to falter towards the end. When the titular club finally was unmasked, it was without fanfare, almost offhanded.
Despite its flaws, The Dumas Club sweeps the reader into its vortex. Often marketed as a mystery novel, it offered more than that. Amidst the murders are literary conspiracies, literary discussions, tons of books, and an eclectic and interesting albeit shady cast of characters. All of these elements were adeptly and carefully woven together by Pérez-Reverte’s compelling storytelling. Suspenseful, didactic, and, at some points insightful, the story ensured to engage the readers from the start until the end, at least almost. With its wealth of details and its atmosphere, The Dumas Club is an absorbing work of mystery fiction.
“The information a book provides tend to be objective. It may be set out by a malevolent author who wishes to mislead, but it is never false. It’s you who makes a false reading.”~ Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Dumas Club
Characters (30%) – 21%
Plot (30%) – 25%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%
It was through must-read lists that I first encountered Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte. A couple of years later, I was able to obtain one of his works, The Seville Communion. Mystery fiction, it initially gained my interest; I used to be an enthusiast of mystery fiction. However, in the end, I was a little underwhelmed despite the book’s promise. This, however, did not stop me from foraying into his other works. The opportunity presented itself after I was able to obtain a copy of The Dumas Club, a book that was also listed as part of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Curious about what the book had in store, I made it part of my 2022 European Literature journey. The book hit the ground running from the onset. Before long, I found myself riveted by Corso’s adventure. The wealth of information the book contained was astounding. The female characterization was a little off but overall, it was an interesting book.
Another thing I found regrettable was my lack of knowledge about Dumas and The Three Musketeers because there were, I surmised, several parallels, especially with the characters, between the two books. I have read just one of his works before, The Count of Monte Cristo. I did try reading The Three Musketeers a couple of years ago but the version I had was unreadable. I guess it is high time to find a readable translation.
Author: Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Translator: Sonia Soto
Publisher: The Harvill Press
Publishing Date: 1996
Number of Pages: 323
A cat-and-mouse thriller, by the author of The Flanders Panel, which proves that the ownership of rare antiquarian manuscripts can be damaging to the health. In this scenario, Three Musketeers find themselves recast in modern dress and having to run for their lives.
About the Author
To learn more about the prolific Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, click here.