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'The Fencing Master' Takes On Arcane Expertise And A Cunning Narrative.

The Fencing Master, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Harcourt Brace). Cloth, $24.

Arturo Pérez-Reverte is an acclaimed journalist in Latin America, Europe, and especially his native Spain, where his opinionated columns on political and military hotspots are known for their insight and candor. In the United States, his cerebral mystery novels are winning a strong following. One reviewer has called Pérez-Reverte "the thinking man's Robert Ludlum," and others have compared him to Umberto Eco.

Actually, Pérez-Reverte falls somewhere in between those two familiar writers, but the comparisons offer a useful point of reference. Less concerned with the scholarly theoretical issues of human understanding than Eco, Pérez-Reverte is wrestling with themes of greater permanent interest than Ludlum's topical approach to political skullduggery.

Each of the protagonists in the four Pérez-Reverte novels to see publication in this country is an ascetic idealist guided by a body of specialized, traditional knowledge which appears irrelevant to the material aspirations of other characters in the surrounding plot.

In The Club Dumas, a rare book scout, who loves old books and manuscripts for their intrinsic qualities, serves venal collectors; in The Flanders Panel, the heroine is a meticulous restorer of Renaissance paintings aided by a reclusive chess master; The Seville Communion is dominated by a modern Vatican envoy who meditates on the austere practices prescribed by Bernard of Clairvaux for medieval Crusaders. In every case, these loners are forced by circumstances to test what force their seemingly outdated codes and arcane knowledge can exercise in the contemporary world.

Don Jaime Astarloa, in The Fencing Master, fits this mold. The last of the old-style fencing masters in 1860's Madrid, a city seething with political intrigue against the tottering monarchy, he has seen his once proud profession sink into tattered disrepute. He ekes out a living giving lessons to snotty middle-class boys whose families want them to gain a bit of upper-class patina. The students are indifferent, pointing out to their teacher that affairs of honor can now be settled more efficiently -- and at a safer distance -- by revolvers. Once each week, Don Jaime provides a bout for exercise, something akin to a hard squash match, for his only remaining aristocratic patron, the Marquis Luis de Ayala, who is murdered in the crime which becomes the ostensible center of The Fencing Master's plot as a whodunit.

Don Jaime is drawn into the mystery not only because the Marquis is his friend, but also because he may have inadvertently abetted the killer. At least that is his initial fear, since the fatal wound from a fencing foil corresponds exactly to that which could only have resulted from Don Jaime's own most carefully guarded secret sword thrust. The fencing master is implicated, because against all tradition he has taught this secret to a woman, Doña Adela de Otero, supposedly because he is intrigued with the novelty of an adept swordswoman, but in fact because he is infatuated. To compound his sense of guilt, he has introduced Luis and Adela and facilitated private fencing matches (and more) between them.

An old-fashioned sense of honor requires that Don Jaime investigate. Dressed in the worn, rather musty frock coats of an earlier generation, he is a peculiar sort of detective, primarily because his chivalrous code of personal behavior is so direct and aboveboard, entirely out of temper with the deceitful, self-serving tenor of his times. In the overheated political environment of Madrid, when new money and republican ambitions are conspiring to topple the old order, about which he cares nothing one way or the other, he is hopelessly naive. He ought to know better. Pérez-Reverte shows him in a daily café chat with neighborhood cronies who are representative men. However, Don Jaime's very code has inoculated him against infection by any of the conflicting views that corrupt his pals. He remains aloof, isolated from modernity; but ultimately what appears to be blind foolishness, a kind of melodramatic fogeyism, is redeemed as avenging purity.

Don Jaime's immersion in the arcane rules and techniques of fencing lies at the center of The Fencing Master. The chapters are structured as if the book were a manual of arms, and technical moves such as the "glissade," the "flaconnade" and "the short lunge" serve as metaphors for the story and for Don Jaime's rising involvement in both the crime and the hidden politics behind it. As Pérez-Reverte has introduced readers to the worlds of incunabula, tournament chess, art and antiquities, or papal politics, here he unveils another rarefied vocation with its own profound history, language and customs. With considerable art he integrates obscure knowledge with a rousing narrative.

The austere principles of Pérez-Reverte's protagonists bespeak a classical, highly individual conservatism. Brutus, "the noblest Roman of them all," must have been something like this. Arturo Pérez-Reverte champions that generous kind of conservatism which clings not to the past for its own sake or to preserve privilege, but which projects tested values forward with the hope of making the future not the same, but better.

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