Tag Archives: Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Arturo Pérez-Reverte, El tango de la guardia vieja


Max Costa has had a complicated life. Starting from humble beginning in Buenos Aires, he becomes a charmer and swindler, and makes his money taking advantage of rich women and stealing jewelry. While he has mostly managed to stay out of trouble, he has done some time in prison. At the beginning of the book we find him living in the Naples area and working as a chauffeur for a well-to-do doctor. Now in his early sixties, he finds himself living humbly again.

One of the most significant encounters in his life occurred much earlier, about 30 years before. While working as a professional dancer on a transatlantic ship, he meets a Spanish couple, a composer and his wife. The composer is interested in the tango. His wife Mecha is a superb tango dancer and she often dances with Max. When they arrive in Buenos Aires, Max takes them to places where the “original” tango is being danced so they can experience its raw sensual power. The composer ends up composing a tango that becomes a famous piece of music, done on a dare from Ravel after he wrote his Bolero. Max is entranced with Mecha but leaves abruptly apparently stealing a very valuable pearl necklace.

They do not meet again for several years but cross paths in Nice shortly before World War II. Max is doing well enough. Unexpectedly, he is contacted by two men who claim to work for the Italian secret service. They require his services to recover some letters from the safe of a rich Spanish man currently in exile in Nice. The letters have some political value. Max gets himself invited to a high society dinner held at the house occupied by the said rich Spaniard, where he runs into Mecha. She is somewhat suspicious of him but they renew their acquaintance. Mecha is living alone in Nice and her husband’s whereabouts in Franco’s Spain are unknown.

Max manages to crack the safe and steal the letters sometime later. However, giving the letters to the Italian guys proves to get complicated as a third party gets involved and two or three guys are killed. Max gets stabbed in the process and calls on Mecha for help. She is rather angry with him but helps him leave so he can take himself somewhere he might be safe for further pursuit from whoever is after the letters or interested in the deaths he is associated with. This very much looks like unfinished business between them. As passionate as some of their encounters have been, both are reluctant to give it any meaning.

The next time they meet, they are in their sixties. Mecha has been widowed, remarried and divorced and her adult son is a chess grand master. Max sees her fortuitously in Sorrento where her son is playing a chess tournament against a Russian grand master. As Max’s boss has just left for several days, Max borrows some clothes and accessories as well as one of the cars he has in his car in his job as chauffeur and manages to install himself in the same high-end hotel. It is unsure to what end he does all this at the beginning and his motivations shift as time goes by. He does reconnect with Mecha, and through some fairly convoluted events, ends up stealing the Russian grand master notebooks to give Mecha’s son the upper hand. The Russians do find him out though and try to get him to say where the books are. In spite of a severe beating bordering on torture, Max keeps his mouth shut.

The book ends with Max again on the run and no resolution to his and Mecha’s relationship.

Convoluted, you say? Maybe so, but the details of the plot are skillfully revealed quite parsimoniously, the settings are quite interesting, and many of the characters intriguing. There is a good pace to this book, and the writing is quite fluid.

It was quite a good story to read. I had never read any book by Pérez-Reverte; I had only seen the movie adaptation of El maestro de esgrimas. As he has written at least 2 dozen books, there might be a few more interesting ones.

Sunday Ramblings: Do I need a focus?


I have arrived at a point again where I am trying to read too many books at the same time. And it causes stress. Every time I sit down I wonder which one I should get into. I worry about reading rates and when I will manage to finish another book so I can blog about (as if anybody cares about that really). Several people read my blog but I am sure no one waits impatiently for the next post.

Whenever this happens, I have to give myself a good kick in the butt and remind myself why I read. Because (1) I love getting into a good story, (2) it’s a way to learn something, (3) it’s a great escape from my day-to-day work life, (4) it’s an exposure to another world, another mind, another way to use language. And in that context, there should be no concern about speed of execution; it should be all about enjoying those moments.

As displayed at the moment on the blog: I am reading Pérez-Reverte’s El tango de la guardia vieja, a good story with some mystery to it. It has what I could describe as a “X” shape construction. It tells a story about two people, a man and a woman, describing in parallel for a while the past life and present predicament of that man. It eventually dips into the past of the woman as well, after they meet again in the present time and start revisiting old times together. So you have the four segments of the “X”, man-woman-present-past, eventually meeting in the middle, where presumably all makes sense (I still have to get to that point) and we can progress to the future, if a (common) future is possible. Nothing is so certain… Both protagonists are rascals of a sort, one with money and one without (I will let you guess which is which), which obviously provides them with different resources and choices in life.

So I am about one third of the way through this fairy large novel, which I suspect is about a 15-hour read. I have also gotten about 20% into the 7-hour long Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, the 2014 winner of the Giller Prize. I have read some of the short list and at least one long listed book, so here we are with the winner. So far, I failed to be entranced by the book and its protagonist, a somewhat self-centered Russian scientist who invented the theremin, this electronic musical instrument that is used for the other-worldly Star Trek theme. This one is on my Kobo, so I have mostly been reading it in public transportation.

It’s been a slow start on Guillaume et Nathalie.

The event of the week is that the new book of poetry by Rafael Courtoisie (Parranda) that I ordered through the Libreria de las Americas in Montreal has finally arrived after a four-month wait. I had called for an update about 2 weeks ago and they told me it was arriving that week, but they did not call me back until Wednesday of this week to tell I would pick up. A big order to unpack perhaps? It is a tiny bookstore with a small staff and not very long opening hours. I dropped by yesterday to get my book, and bought a couple more since I was there (one has to encourage small niche businesses, right?).

Now, look as I may, I cannot find a publication date on Parranda. The front does say that is the winner of the 14th Premio Casa de América de Poesía Americana, but the copyright page does not explicitly say it was published in 2014, save for the legal deposit number including the number 2014. That is not the way it is usually done with other books, so I was puzzled.

So Parranda won a poetry prize for poets from the Americas which is handed out at the Case de América in Madrid. It is published in Spain by what seems to be a fairly small publisher and one whose books are difficult to order in Canada. Rafael Courtoisie is an Uruguayan writer who was recently named to the Academy of Letters of his country and has had so far an interesting career both a writer and teacher, and more to come I hope. I have had an interesting time exploring his work so far and I am in the process of formulating a study course on Uruguayan literature (which I hope will be a good preparation for a vacation in Uruguay in 2-3 years from now).

The other course of study I am pursuing is the short Coursera offering on Australian literature, a six-week exploration of Australian literature fundamentals with a professor from the University of Western Australia. So far pretty interesting, although I have already fallen being and am trying to catch up. The first week was about varying perceptions of land and space from current and early writers, as well as from aboriginal culture. The second week focuses on the original of Australia as a penal colony and how this theme as been used in literature. The main part of the course are the video lectures and little actual reading (short extracts only) which makes it a good introduction but certainly invites one to more in depth reading. In terms of workload, it is much less daunting than the 2 previous lit courses I did on Coursera which required reading a full-size novel each week (or the equivalent in smaller works).

So, my head is all over the place… Oh well, back to reading (and cooking and housework, as it is Sunday and there are other demands on my time as well).

And here we go for the humorous link:

Sheldon (The Big Bang Theory) playing the Star Trek theme on the theremin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YYABE0R3uA