The Fencing Master
In the late 1860's Madrid is in political upheaval. Queen Isabel II is losing power as the rebels try to come in and overthrow the monarchy. The primary choice of rebel leaders is Don Juan Prim. There are plots and sub plots and counter plots and every person has an opinion as to what should happen next to the Spanish government.
Don Jaime Astarloa is one of the exceptions. He was a soldier briefly in his youth. Then. after a foolish indiscretion with a woman that led to a duel, he killed the other man. He had to leave abruptly. He went to Paris and became an apprentice to the best fencer alive. He followed the master to Austria, Italy then return to Paris. As he progressed he earned his own certificate. He then became a fencing master and teacher himself, one of the best in Paris. After a duel on behalf of the Paris fencing society lead to another death, Don Jaime returned to Madrid. For the past twenty plus years he has lived in Madrid and is a fencing master.
The art of fencing is dying. More people are turning to the less elegant and less personal pistols. Don Jaime has only a few students and a few fencing partners who come to maintain their skills. The most prominent of those is the marquis Luis de Ayala, a wealthy gentleman who loves gambling and women as much as fencing. His few students are sons of other nobles and wealthy men in Madrid. It doesn't earn him much, but enough to get by for his limited needs.
He also meets a group of men every afternoon at a local cafe. The others argue politics. Don Jaime hears but doesn't listen. His life is comfortable and he rests on his honor. He goes along in his small corner of the world, apart from real life in Madrid. He is an old world gentleman towards the end of his life.
When a woman comes to Don Jaime he turns her away. She wants to learn a special move that he developed and few people know. He has never fenced with a woman and doesn't feel that he should start now. But Adela de Otero is a determined woman. She challenges him to a duel to prove herself. She is one of the most proficient fencers he has met in many years. He agrees to take her on. He even begins to justify his reasons. The truth is that he is attracted to and falling in love with her.
One day Don Jaime introduces Luis de Ayala to the mysterious beauty. She ends her sessions with Don Jaime and starts accompanying the marquis around the city. A month or two later the marquis is found dead. She is found dead the next day. Now Don Jaime needs to find who killed them - at the same time Madrid is about to explode as the rebels move in to take power.
What a quietly fascinating book. Arturo Perez-Reverte pulls different threads together - growing older, honor, politics, changing mores, standing above life, and more. The Fencing Master is a relatively short novel - about 250 pages - yet hits areas to make the reader think.
For example, at one point Don Jaime overhears a conversation that's an argument for keeping the monarchy: "I can tell you that I would rather be governed by a Caesar or a Bonaparte, whom I could always try to assassinate if I didn't care for him, than have my tastes, customs, and the company I keep decided by the vote of the shopkeeper on the corner." This reminds me of a scene from Remains of the Day where one of the upperclass gentlemen asks Stevens, the butler, his opinion on some current day international questions. Stevens has always prided himself on doing his work without getting involved, so has no opinion that he will state. The gentleman uses Stevens response as a reason for maintaining the class rule because the lower classes don't know what's happening. Having lived my life in a country that prides itself on democracy, I had never seen that opinion expressed. Yet The Fencing Master takes time to look at both sides of rhe question of the revolution.
Perez-Reverte uses Don Jaime to show how a man can be standing on the outside looking in. When younger, his passions were personal, not political. When it comes to larger issues he is aloof, sticking to his own routine and letting events unfold. He doesn't have opinions on issues that could eventually affect him such as political arguements.
Yes, The Fencing Master is a novel that leaves the reader thinking as well as provides a good story. The ending stops a bit short on purpose, leaving the reader to decide what happens next... Read it and decide for yourself.
Notice: Non-graphic violence, Suggestive dialogue or situations
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