El Club Dumas

“El Club Dumas”, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, 1993: 84-663-1831-3 (Blackwell’s, amazon.com, amazon.co.uk).
“The Dumas Club”: 0099448599 (Blackwell’s, amazon.com, amazon.co.uk).
“The Club Dumas”: 015603283X (Blackwell’s, amazon.com, amazon.co.uk).

Wanting to brush up my Spanish, I realised that the reason that I’d been finding Spanish novels heavy going was that I’d been reading heavy Spanish novels. If you’re not the sort of person who reads Russian novels, sitting in the corner of a café in rimless spectacles and dressed entirely in black, then there is little point in trying to find enchantment in Gabriel García Márquez or Pedro Vargas Llosa. You want something entertaining and unimproving: hence this book.

At first it works excellently. The Spanish is clear, straightforward, and literately colloquial. The main character, Lucas Corso, is a predatory outsider, a hunter of rare books whose wolfish nature hides itself behind a rabbit-like innocence (on one occasion, a rabbit engaged on half a carrot) when he needs to charm or disarm. All the standard “film noir” ingredients are there: the old friend and drinking companion, the rough bar run by a couple of lesbians, the girlfriend who left him one day with no explanation. The other characters are satisfyingly grotesque: crooked twin bookbinders who can restore any book, whether it exists or not; a phenomenally rich and evil antiquarian bookseller (called Borgia) with satanist obsessions; an inconsolable widow, blonde and pneumatic, aggressive and seductive just like Dumas’ Milady.

The whole book, in fact, is an echo of and a homage to The Three Musketeers: even the chapter headings are direct references to Dumas. As long as this is a game, it is rather fun. As soon as you’ve identified the Rochefort character you can have fun half-remembering Rochefort’s part in the original and seeing the variations that are played on it. But ultimately, in this genre of thriller, it is compulsory to bring things down to earth and tie them back into 20th-century reality, and the necessary explanations end up deflating the story and leaving it flat and lifeless, like a soufflé that’s been left in a draught.

Meanwhile there is the other strand: Borgia has the only surviving copy of a 17th-century satanist manual – every other copy was burned by the Inquisition along with the man who printed it. Unfortunately there are two other “only surviving copies” and Corso is commissioned to hunt them down. This is the cue for some more entertaining grotesques – a crumbling Portuguese noble in a crumbling Portuguese mansion; a refined Austro-Hungarian baroness who is a best-selling author of books on the occult – and an intricate bit of unravelling and code-breaking to discover the real “only surviving copy”.

But there is always something deadening about this kind of plot. There is something about the occult that makes books dull. Perhaps devil-worship has the same effect on the soul of a book as on the soul of a man, turning it inward towards meaningless emptiness. As soon as the chase after clues and unravelling of cryptograms begins, we know it to be a chase after nothingness and a waste of time. The book starts to smell more and more of Foucault’s Pendulum by Umbert Eco, a book so awful that I gave it away to a friend I particularly disliked and meditated suing Eco to give me back the 3½ hours I had wasted on it on a train from London to Blackpool. It is no surprise to discover one of Pérez-Reverte’s charcters directly invoking the name of one of Eco’s.

The other difficulty with a supernatural theme is that Pérez-Reverte, like Eco, is an Enlightenment rationalist who doesn’t believe in any of this stuff, so that as well as being an abuse of intellect it becomes a waste of time as well. You know in advance that when the one true copy is finally found, when we have watched it being decoded through pages and pages of tables and illustrations, when we have endured the ritual of invocation being performed, nothing supernatural will happen, because the author doesn’t believe in it. He doesn’t even have the courage of his own rationalist convictions, so you also know that nothing supernatural will definitively not happen either. It’s like watching one of those crime caper films of the 1960s, where you know that the criminals aren’t going to be allowed to get away with it and you sit with sinking heart waiting for the improbable final-reel plot twist demanded by the Hollywood censors.

In the end the defect of the book is just this: that the author isn’t willing to throw himself into it heart and soul. He is willing to nod in as many directions as he can – a lot of Dumas, quite a bit of Eco, some Sherlock Holmes – but he isn’t willing to commit himself. As Oscar Wilde said: “This man has no soul and he has poured it all out in this book”.

I find that I’ve left out the angel. Well, there’s a rather sweet short-haired student girl of about 20 who seems to know more about what is going on than Corso does, has memories and wisdom beyond her years, and may or may not be an angel in disguise. The book lights up when she appears (I’d love to have someone like that around, just quietly appearing when she’s needed), but in the end Pérez-Reverte feels he has to decide whether she’s an angel or not, and he tells us, and the magic is gone.

Pérez-Reverte would be a great author if he believed in what he wrote. As it is, if you want adventure, read The Three Musketeers. If you want devils, read Dennis Wheatley. If you want angels, read Miss Garnet’s Angel.

On the other hand, if you simply want to improve your Spanish, read this book.