My first encounter with Arturo Perez-Reverte was The Fencing Master, with which I was quite taken. After The Nautical Chart, however, I don’t think I’ll go seeking another. This was one of those last-minute-pick-something-up-for-the-plane choices. It has its moments—a well-set-up ending twist, for example—but for the most part, it makes a vice of its virtues.
The virtues in question include an admirable integration of jazz into the narrative, a deft connecting of back story with the main narrative, and the skillful use of the omniscient narrator, a self-proclaimed Conradian Marlowe, who knows and sees all.
However, Perez-Reverte gets so caught up in all the tales of the past that the “present” loses its punch. It almost seems that every time a new event happens, it triggers a series of memories and concomitant emotions in the protagonist that takes us far off the main trail. A certain amount of this is effective. It gives the book texture and perspective and a sort of nineteenth century feel. After a time, though, the technique becomes formulaic, and we wish we could just get on with the story.
One thing you can’t take away from Perez-Reverte, though. He does his research. I remember that one aspect of the The Fencing Master I admired was the depth of his knowledge of fencing technique, terminology, process—art. Here, somewhat (though not to such a great degree) that one could use Moby Dick as a textbook about whaling, The Nautical Chart could serve as a handbook of cartography. I think I can guarantee that you’ll learn more about the history and use of longitude and latitude in this book than in any other work of fiction.
You’ll also find a more blatant use of the siren/femme fatale motif than you’ll find in most modern literature. It’s not something I think we need more of.
In the end, what I finished with is an overly-long story of some interesting characters caught in a situation that would have been much more absorbing if I could have spent more time in that situation than in all the situations that came before.