Observer Review: The Nautical Chart By Arturo P?rez-Reverte Essay, Research Paper
In search of lost treasureThe Nautical ChartArturo Pérez-RevertePicador ?16.99, pp465Towards the end of The Nautical Chart, the central character, Coy, finds a turtle caught in a net. He dives into the sea to free her, slashing away at a thousand feet of fishing mesh that trap her until, finally, she swims off, exhausted, trailing blood that turns the water pink, and without much of a chance. But at least, he thinks, she will die where she belongs, in the open sea.Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s fifth book is subtitled ‘a novel of adventure’, and it’s a great yarn, ripping along on a tide of piracy, treasure-hunting, love and betrayal. But it is also a novel about adventure, whose characters are haunted by tales old and new.From The Odyssey to The Maltese Falcon, Lord Jim to Red Rackham’s Treasure, stories of heroism and romance tempt them and help them chart their lives. But plastic drums and turtle-trapping trawler nets litter the Mediterranean. Global-positioning satellites do the hard navigational work for us, and it remains to be seen whether there is any mystery or romance left.Coy is a quiet, stoical merchant seaman who has consciously modelled himself on the heroes of Stevenson, Melville and Conrad. A little adrift on land, he is in his element at sea. And if his moral course may not always exactly be in line with the law, it is utterly reliable and consistent, a fixed point from which soundings can always be taken. (Pérez-Reverte’s reliance on seafaring metaphor, which was a bit much for me once or twice – is clearly catching.) In this clever author’s hands, Coy is at once an archetype and individually flawed: fiercely masculine and a little stupid and vulnerable with it.Scapegoated for an incident that wasn’t strictly his fault and barred from sailing for two years, Coy is hanging around an auction of shipping memorabilia when he meets a historian from the naval museum in Madrid. Tanger Soto is an enigmatic beauty whose power is never fully explained, but is clearly capable of launching a thousand ships. She successfully bids for a nautical chart, and, as Coy trails around Spain after her, it emerges that she is a sort of modern pirate, on the trail of buried treasure.Soto is trying to locate a brigantine that sank off the coast of Cartagena following a battle with a corsair in 1747. Flying under false colours, the corsair was captained by an Englishman and carrying a motley crew. For her part, Tanger Soto is pursued by a professional treasure hunter, a British subject from Gibraltar called Nino Palermo, and his unappetising henchmen.In the modern world, Tanger Soto’s forensic skills as a historian have become as important as Coy’s talents for beating up enemies and working out his position on the planet from the stars. The sea is a different place too, where fish are asphyxiated after swallowing floating plastic bags, where tanker captains are businessmen and owners think of ships as big trucks.And yet… the sea remains unpredictably dangerous, and, in places, lawless. It covers, as Nino Palermo reminds Coy, two-thirds of the planet and holds the remains of 5 per cent of all the ships that have ever sailed: ‘the most extraordinary museum in the world. Ambition, tragedy, memories, riches, death.’It is no accident that this book is set on the shores of the Mediterranean, where ancient history feels like yesterday. ‘Oil and red wine, Islam and Talmud, crosses, pines, cypresses, tombs, churches, sunsets crimson as blood, white sails in the distance….’In the same way that Tanger Soto’s adventure overlays and echoes the eighteenth-century pirate story, the narration has a kind of Chinese-box effect. The novel opens with an unnamed narrator who points out Coy to us and then fades, only to re-emerge two-thirds of the way through, identifying himself (in a pompous, finicky voice) as a professor of cartography. Before he fades again, he informs us that stories like this scarcely ever happen these days and so, without his authorial voice, ‘the classical aroma would be lacking’.Arturo Pérez-Reverte is clearly having a lot of fun with this. And it is a pretty irresistible combination: an adventure story that poses questions about why we tell stories in the first place, and if, when the methods change, the themes remain the same.As a thriller, the plotting isn’t perfect: you have to read to page 200 to find out what Tanger Soto’s after, and page 250 before you learn what she’s really after. Her mysteriousness is intriguing up to a point, but I was beginning to feel strung-along. the crucial clue supplied by the narrator – who becomes, briefly, a character – is something Soto should really have known. Still, the second half of the novel rattles along to a denouement with enough twisting drama to satisfy the most hardened thriller addict.The translation isn’t always perfectly smooth: it ‘all fit’, when I felt it ‘all fitted’, and one otherwise rather hot sex scene ended with Coy going in search of the road to Ithaca. I don’t know if it worked in Spanish, but in the rhythms of English it hit me like a dreadful euphemism from a bodice-ripper. The descriptions, though, especially of ports, are wonderful.Pérez-Reverte sailed on a tanker to the Gulf in his teens, so he understands from the inside how the sea looks to a professional. The Nautical Chart is playful and serious, a satisfying thriller that poses questions about what it takes to understand the past and chart the future, and the extent to which the stories we carry around with us show the way, or leave us at sea.