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Call him Coy. Manuel Coy's a not-tall, not-handsome almost forty Spanish merchant marine officer who's been suspended for two years because of a catastrophe that happened on his watch. His life is the sea, and while he's intelligent, the sea is almost all he knows or cares about. He reads a lot, but only about the sea, and he says he's ignorant of all classics taking place on land. His life has gone through Stevenson, Melville, and Conrad periods. He dislikes all the moments he has to be on land. Being on land is nothing but trouble.
Call her Captain Ahab, but she won't respond because she doesn't realize that that's the role she's playing. Her name is Tanger Soto, in her late twenties, and she's been single-mindedly obsessed since childhood with dreams about recovering wrecked ships and treasure. She's well read, her copy of THE MALTESE FALCON is especially dog-eared, and, like me, she's an old fan of THE ADVENTURES OF TIN-TIN. She works in Madrid's Naval Museum and saves her money for a highly personal project, to find the lost Jesuit ship Dei Gloria, which sunk in 1767 off the south Spanish coast. She has researched information not generally available about the sunken ship's location and the fact that a fortune in rare emeralds was aboard. She feels that "People are so stupid ... Their dreams are limited to things they see on TV."
They meet in Barcelona, where Coy saves Tanger from an unscrupulous ship salvage operator named Palermo who's after the same treasure. She thanks Coy, they have a drink, and she returns to Madrid. Coy, almost broke and unable to take a job at the only profession he knows, goes to Madrid. She's just another girl, he thinks, but inside reacts differently. For her part, Coy is just what she wants, an experienced seaman, diver, and friend to a man with an available boat.
Tanger has experience with sea charts, but not directly with the sea. Bad guy Palermo, his Berber chauffeur/bodyguard, and his Argentine dwarf hatchetman try to make Tanger join in with them, but the dwarf kills her cat as a warning, and that makes Coy mad. Gradually Coy admits to himself that Tanger is no longer just another girl, but Coy's own obsession. Along with Coy's boat-owning friend El Piloto, Coy and Tanger go to sea.
Coy doesn't care about emeralds, but he has a special appreciation for women. "You had to be a woman ... to demonstrate a shrewdness as keen as a steel blade. Inimitable and born of the long genetic memory of countless ancestors stowed like booty in the holds of black, concave ships, thighs bloody amid smoking ruins and corpses, weaving and ripping out tapestries through countless winters, giving birth to men for new Troys and awaiting the return of exhausted heroes, of gods with feet of clay whom they at times loved, often feared, and nearly always, sooner or later, scorned." Here we see that among his reading Coy has included THE ODYSSEY. Aside from the sea, Coy knows what he wants: "Flesh ... a curve that blended into other perfect lines ... a waist ... warm thighs that hid the greatest of all mysteries."
All is strictly business with Tanger, who has no interest in romance. But one night they dock in Cartagena, and Coy spots the Argentine dwarf spying on them. Coy grabs him by surprise and beats the mierda out of him. Apparently Tanger has never seen anything so sexually arousing in all her life. She and Coy rush to get at each other and make love like a pair of elephants. "I'll kill anyone who gets in the way now, thought Coy. Anyone. His skin and his saliva and his flesh were effortlessly entering flesh ever moister and more welcoming, deep, very deep, there where the keys to all enigmas lies hidden, and where the centuries have forged the one true temptation in the form of an answer to the mystery of death and life." Coy is a seaman philosopher. On one occasion he and Tanger are drinking heavily, and he observes that "alcohol would transpose all images to black and white. Because after so many novels, so many films, and so many songs, there weren't even innocent drunks anymore. And [he wondered] what the first man felt the first time he went out to hunt a whale, a treasure, or a woman, without ever having read about it in a book."
Much of the story, though, is about the sea, sailing, navigation, charts, nautical instruments, meridians, and such, to the point of perhaps being too much for the average reader, even the average reader of novels of this type (which in the first place are not everyone's cup of tea). I admired Perez-Reverte tremendously when I reviewed the first book of his I had read, THE SEVILLE CONNECTION, but I think he has sacrificed too much of THE NAUTICAL CHART to his long descriptions of ocean technicalities. Still, it could be fascinating to ocean enthusiasts. And even for those of us who are landlubbers, we should never let the seeds interfere with our enjoyment of the grapes. There's a lot to make this book well worth reading. Here we have excellent writing, a superb plot, and interesting atypical characters, especially Tanger, who exhibits strength far beyond the ordinary heroine, but is still superbly feminine and sensual. The setting, too, is delightful, and unlike Coy, I enjoyed the land episodes in southern Spain.
Respect should be paid to Margaret Sayers Peden, who translated from Spanish to English and seems to have done most competent work. I can carp about a few places where I had to raise an eyebrow, but can't say if these contretemps were due to the author, the translator, or the editor. Coy, for example, is proud of his ignorance of any novel but those of the sea, yet he shows his acquaintance with Cervantes, Proust, and other "land" authors, and he seems to have read "all of Ian Fleming's novels." On the same page where we find the author putting elegant words into the mind of Coy (ie, the "warm thighs" expression given above), we find Perez-Reverte expressing Tanger's mind with a trite expression like "I burned the midnight oil." And at times we find the villain, Palermo, sounding more like Coy, eg, when he says that woman play "with weapons we don't even know exist. And they're much cleverer than we are. While we were spending centuries talking in loud voices and drinking beer, going off to Crusades or football games with our pals, they were right there, sewing and cooking and watching ..." The story is written from the point of view of third person narration via Coy, or so it seems. But along toward the end of the book we are told that it's really first person narration by a university professor who enters the story in person for but a short time, and in his point-of-view capacity seem superfluous. He could have been like all the other characters.
No matter. Perez-Reverte is an extraordinarily good writer. Notwithstanding THE SEVILLE CONNECTION being a better book as a whole, the fast-moving, unexpected conclusion of THE NAUTICAL CHART has the better ending. I recommend the book to those who might be on the borderline after reading both my pro and con comments above -- I don't think you'll be disappointed. Perez-Reverte is high up on my favorite writer list.
Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, January 2003
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