27 April 2002

Salt and sextants

The Nautical Chart
by Arturo Perez-Reverte, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

The sea as a literary trope is functionally rather similar to outer space in science fiction. It is a liminal realm where the messy contingencies of dry land or solid earth are left behind, and human action, confined to a flimsy shell surrounded by a hostile environment, can be observed at its most elemental and most mythically resonant. Ridley Scott’s film Alien, for example, with its sly winks to Joseph Conrad (the ship is called the Nostromo), is a sea story in everything but its superficies; and the countless episodes of Star Trek constitute an extended homage to that first great sea adventure, The Odyssey.

In the age of global-positioning satellites, diesel engines and sonar imaging, though, the sea and its dangers have been largely demystified: were Conrad writing today, his characters might be astronauts rather than sailors. This fading of the ocean’s romance is a major theme in Arturo Perez-Reverte’s present-day romance of the ocean. The sea no longer represents the perfect escape it once did. “It isn’t easy anymore to get away,” explains the taciturn hero at one point. “There’s the telephone, the fax, the Internet . . . ” That being so, Perez-Reverte splices the action with a historical puzzle from the golden age of sail: the chase and sinking by a pirate ship of an 18th-century Jesuit brigantine, whose secret cargo now lies somewhere on the sea bottom, beckoning to a colourful cast of modern treasure-hunters.

The Nautical Chart is highly conscious of its literary ancestors: its hero, Coy, is a sailor who has read all the classic sea romances, constantly namechecking Conrad, Melville and Stevenson. There is even a moment when the omniscient narrator reveals himself as a character in the story, and calls himself “the Marlow of this novel”. And yet Perez-Reverte also worries playfully about the impossibility of situating his work within such a glorious tradition. “You always read too many books… That can’t lead to any good,” a wise old sea-dog tells the romance-blinded hero at one point.

We first meet Coy on land: he is a stranded Lord Jim, “exiled from the sea” owing to the fact that his last ship ran aground on his watch. Killing time in Barcelona, Coy wanders into an auction of naval objects, and witnesses a fierce bidding war between a piratical-looking man with a grey ponytail and a beautiful blonde woman. The object they are competing to buy is an 18th-century nautical chart. The woman wins it, along with Coy’s lustful attentions. Soon he is sucked with her into a race to find the sunken Jesuit treasure, competing against the grey-ponytailed man and his frightening Argentine henchman.

As in all nautical tales, a ship is a woman, and so is the sea, whereas an actual woman is something else altogether. The blonde, who employs Coy to help her find the treasure, is Tanger Soto: mysterious, unreachable, stringing Coy along and parcelling out information only at essential points. Coy wants, like John Donne, to chart her geography; her motives remain obscure. Tanger is Woman, rather than a woman. On the other hand, the character of Coy himself is beautifully textured. He is short but strong; shy but quick with his fists; a melancholy innocent. Secondary personae, too, are deftly sketched: Coy’s best friend, known only as El Piloto, is a model of the Conradian good captain; the Argentine villain is a cunning mixture of slapstick and menace; and the narrator is a superbly self-important academic, a comic creation almost worthy of Nabokov.

As an adventure yarn, The Nautical Chart is near irreproachable. But the embedded historical story sputters to life rather inconsistently. Scene upon scene of Tanger explaining to Coy the minutiae of old navigational techniques, and declaiming potted histories of 18th-century Spanish politics, lie flat on the page. Perez-Reverte’s previous novels have been cunningly constructed around puzzles that the reader is invited to second-guess: chess problems diagrammed in The Flanders Panel, or microscopic inconsistencies between engravings reproduced among the pages of The Dumas Club. The problem here is that differences between sea charts, and tricks with sextants or meridians, do not constitute a puzzle that can be shown, only talked about. The reader is left on the sidelines, observing the characters groping towards a solution without ever really understanding the path that is followed.

In that respect, the novel can feel a little unbalanced. But as a whole it is gripping, and as the characters begin to zero in on the suspected location of the treasure, Perez-Reverte cheerfully unfurls more canvas on the masts of his plot. Powered by an infectious joy in storytelling, his vessel speeds to a surprising and wholly satisfying destination. This is literature that is unembarrassed also to be entertainment, and in that respect it is a noble tribute to its salty forebears of centuries past.