Wet Noir: Arturo Perez Reverte’s The Nautical Chart

This is another book I technically started reading last year, but I’ve only now gotten around to finishing. There will be fresher reviews to come, I promise!

I first read Arturo Perez Reverte back in high school. The Club Dumas was assigned reading for my English class. In retrospect, it’s kind of funny we read a Spanish novelist in an English class, but I can’t complain, as Reverte was certainly more interesting than most everything else we read that semester. I can’t stand Great Expectations because of that class.

I then forgot about Reverte as an author until I stumbled across his Captain Alatriste series, which are historical and swashbuckly and an absolute delight to read. Put enough rapiers and plumed hats on the cover, and I’ll just eat that up.

Based on this, I snagged The Nautical Chart for a couple of bucks at a used bookstore. I mean, it’s an author I like, and the title sounds fairly swashbuckly, so what’s not to like? And again, reading literature in translation (or just books without rockets on the cover) makes me feel fancy.

The Nautical Chart is about Coy, a sailor without a ship, who meets a beautiful woman, Tanger Soto, and gets caught up in a plot to search for a lost shipwreck containing a secret sunken treasure. The book is more thoughtful and slower paced than my little blurb makes it sound- instead of being a pulpy, Indiana Jones ish adventure, The Nautical Chart reads more like noir. Noir with boats. Not only is Tanger a classic femme fatale (albiet one with a tan), there’s also the obligatory crime boss, his goons, mysteries, betrayal, and all sorts of fun stuff.

The biggest difference between Coy and Sam Spade (or even Harry Dresden) is a matter of purpose. Where the stereotypical Noir protagonist actively mucks around to uncover whatever the mystery is, Coy is a bit more passive. Like a boat without a captain, Coy is adrift, purposeless- until he falls in love with Tanger and follows her on her treasure hunt.

The slow, thoughtful way the novel plays out is what I’ve come to expect from Reverte. I think that’s one of the reasons it took me so long to finish the book- I’d read a few chapters, set the book down, read something else, and then return a bit later. Reverte enjoys going off on tangents, and Coy’s numerous sailor’s tales that he relates over the course of the story are quite interesting. This said, the meandering would get a little tiresome after awhile. Things pick up in the latter half of the novel when the treasure hunt starts spiraling in to its conclusion, but things still proceed at a rather methodical pace. This isn’t a breathless page-turner by any means. And that’s okay!

As one would expect from a book named The Nautical Chart, there are a lot of words dedicated to sailing and navigation; both literally, and as metaphor. One of the key things about Reverte’s style is his dedication to research. In The Club Dumas, he goes on about antique book collecting. In Captain Alatriste, he’s all about the decline of the Spanish Empire. And in The Nautical Chart, well…you get the point.

The book ends on a melancholy note, which is another thing I’ve come to expect from Reverte. I haven’t read enough Spanish literature to say if that’s a common thing on a whole. Even though the book had a downer ending, it was an appropriate downer ending, if that makes any sense. It’s melancholic, but not nihilistic, if that makes any sense.

Even though it took me entirely too long to read The Nautical Chart, I still enjoyed it. This said, I’m still going to have to track down the next Alatriste novel at some point. I think there’s pirates in that one.

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