Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s 1988 novel El maestro de esgrima, published in English under the title The Fencing Master, takes us to the Spain of 1866, where the long, troubled reign of Isabella II is about to stumble to an end in the Glorious Revolution . Although aware of the political turmoil swirling around him, fencing master Don Jaime Astarloa ignores such grimy realities. He would rather focus on his Quixotic search for the perfect sword thrust, while eking out a small income teaching the gentlemanly art of fencing to upper-class students. Unfortunately for Don Jaime, politics is not going to ignore him.
Don Jaime is an intensely conservative man, preferring to focus on the virtues of the past rather than the sordid realities of the mid-19th century; he is in many ways a man out of time. Accordingly, when Adela de Otero attempts to hire Don Jaime to teach her his secret two-hundred-escudo thrust, he rejects her request out of hand; he has never taught a woman before and he sees no reason why he should start now.
It is only after the mysterious Adela proves herself a far more worthy student than the spoiled children and bored aristocrats who now make up the majority of his students that Don Jaime reconsiders. Although Adela is extremely coy about her background, it is clear that she knows her fencing. Don Jaime never expected to respect a woman fencer, but he has no choice but to admire Adela’s skill.
It doesn’t take long for Don Jaime to go from admiration to infatuation (an infatuation that he denies and resists). Alas for poor Don Jaime, one of his more prominent students is the notorious womanizer, Luis de Ayala, Adela wangles an introduction to the aging roué — an introduction that turns into an affair. Don Jaime is both saddened and relieved when Adela loses interest in him and stops her fencing lessons.
As the forces tearing Spain apart tumble towards crisis, Luis de Ayala is murdered. He has been slain (as an unhappy Don Jaime realizes when he sees the corpse) by Don Jaime’s own two-hundred-escudo thrust, a fencing move known only to a select few.
One of whom is the woman who has fascinated Don Jaime …
Anyone who has read a sufficient number of detective novels or who is familiar with noir should be able to spot where the plot has go as soon as Adela is introduced, but just because something is inevitable and unstoppable doesn’t mean it’s not also entrancing.
Poor honourable Don Jaime! He considers himself above the petty distractions and corruptions of life in Spain in the late 1860s but in reality his attempt to turn his back on such matters just makes him terrible vulnerable to exploitation by those he considers his friends. His naïveté doesn’t even keep him safe; the players on the other side cannot be sure that Don Jaime is really as ignorant as he seems and must treat him as an opponent.
Of course, the mistake Don Jaime’s enemies make is to let him know he has enemies and that he is for some reason a target. The fencing master may be a total loss when it comes to playing detective, but presenting himself as bait and then simply waiting with sword prepared is well within his skill set.
Although Don Jaime’s code leaves him poorly prepared for the intrigue into which he is drawn, he comes out of the affair looking at worst foolish, Most of those around him are shown in far more damning lights. His loyalty to a way of life seen as hopelessly outdated may seem misplaced, but the alternatives hardly seem better.
1: Sorta kinda. She didn’t formally abdicate until 1870.