Sunday, October 23, 2011

"to have known the land when it was whole and sprawling and rich and fresh"

Rick Bass, in his book of novellas The Sky, The Stars, and The Wilderness (which I will review in a later blog), prefaces the same-titled third of the stories with the following wonderful citation:

"Of all these passers-through, the species that means most to me, even more than geese and cranes, is the upland plover, the drab plump grassland bird that used to remind my gentle hunting uncle of the way things once had been, as it still reminds me.  It flies from the far northern prairies to the pampas of Argentina and then back again in spring, a miracle of navigation and a tremendous journey for six or eight ounces of flesh and feathers and entrails and hollow bones, fueled with bug meat.  I see them sometimes in our pastures, standing still or dashing after prey in the grass, but mainly I know their presence through the mournful yet eager quavering whistles they cast down from the night sky in passing, and it always makes me think what the whistling must have been like when the American plains were virgin and their plover came through in millions.
To grow up among tradition-minded people leads one often into backward yearnings and regrets, unprofitable feelings of which I was granted my share in youth --- not having been born in time to get killed fighting Yankees, for one, or not having ridden up the cattle trails.  But the only such regret that has strongly endured is not to have known the land when it was whole and sprawling and rich and fresh, and the plover that whet one's edge every spring and every fall.  In recent decades it has become customary --- and right, I guess, and easy enough with hindsight --- to damn the ancestral frame of mind that ravaged the world so fully and so soon.  What I myself see to damn mainly, though, is just not having seen it.  Without any virtuous hindsight, I would likely have helped in the ravaging as did even most of those who loved it best.  But God, to have viewed it entire, the soul and guts of what we had and gone forever now, except in books and such poignant remnants as small swift birds that journey to and from the distant Argentine and call at night in the sky."
--- John Graves, Self-Portrait with Birds

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review: 'The Sun Over Breda' by Arturo Perez-Reverte

The Sun Over Breda: The Adventures of Captain Alatriste (1998)
Arturo Pérez-Reverte (1951-)

273 pages

In the fog, rain and mud of Flanders, far from their homes in Spain, soldiers of King Philip IV fight to retain control of the land for their country and for the “true religion,” against “heretical” and “Calvinist” rebels. The Spanish soldiers, often going without pay for many months at a time, fight on wearing disintegrating clothing and eating scraps of food, taking what they can from the occasional sacking of a larger city, or from what little the Dutch of the countryside still have left after many years of war. But then, as Arturo Pérez-Reverte makes clear throughout his novel The Sun Over Breda, these Spanish soldiers fight not so much for riches as for honor --- their own and their country’s.

The novel is one of a series written by Pérez-Reverte chronicling the adventures of the fictional Captain Diego Alatriste. Alatriste fights in the Spanish army during the tumultuous years of the early 17th century, as Spain, after over a century as the strongest, wealthiest and most influential country on earth, was beginning to slowly lose its grip on power. Though still strong, its army suffered the effects of too many widely dispersed commitments; though still wealthy, the country watched its riches disappear at an alarming rate to support those commitments; and though still wielding significant influence, it saw England and France begin to gain the upper hand in conflicts throughout Europe and the New World.

Captain Alatriste’s young, teenage aide Iñigo Balboa narrates the story, presenting it to the reader from some future point, as he looks back and tries to explain the events leading up to the surrender of the Flemish city of Breda to the Spanish in 1624 after a long siege, and the lives of the soldiers with whom he had shared the experience. Captain Alatriste, ever at the center of the Iñigo’s recounting, stands as an icon of the brave soldiers who fought for their homeland, and yet in many ways were homeless and on their own. A skillful fighter whose heroic engagement for the Spanish on far-flung battlefields carries much weight with his squad, Alatriste’s title of ‘Captain’ is actually honorary, not official, bestowed upon him by the men of his squad and even acknowledged by his immediate superiors. Thoughtful and taciturn, Alatriste is hard but fair, the epitome of the honor-bound soldier who follows orders without complaint, but understands too when he must stand with him men and his principles against an injustice.

The novel opens with the bloody sacking by the Spanish of a smaller city near Breda, and continues through a sequence of clashes up to the end of the siege of Breda itself. Pérez-Reverte, however, does not simply present to the reader an action-adventure story of hard-fought battles. Though plenty of swordplay and fighting occurs along the way, The Sun Over Breda stands out as true historical fiction, as the author goes into detail about the difficult conditions in which the soldiers (as well as the Dutch of the war-torn countryside) live, how the years of war have worn them down, and how and why they continue to carry on in the face of nearly unending hardship. Not just a novel of soldiers fighting bravely for their cause, Pérez-Reverte allows us to feel the cold, wet, stitched-together clothing the soldiers continuously patch together, the taste of the dried out bread and then soup they survive on as they wait to fight, and the chaos of hand to hand combat along foggy dikes and in dark caves barely wide enough to pass through.

Other reviews / information:
To my mind, Viggo Mortensen plays an excellent Captain Alatriste in a film version of the series, Alatriste.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION