Saturday, 19 September 2015

Review: The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Club Dumas was used as the basis of the 1999 Roman Polanski film The Ninth Gate, but the two have very little to do with each other. So little, in fact, that I only became faintly aware that the two might be connected when I was reading the novel - but I only checked and verified the connection after I had finished the book (out of unnecessary fear of spoiling the story). Whereas the film was a slight disappointment to me back in the day, the novel is one of the best I've read in a long time. Perhaps because what it actually is: a treat to all those readers who love the old serial novels, such as Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers. And, if you've ever taken a look at this particular blog, you'll know that I'm just such a person.

The protagonist is an antique book dealer, Lucas Corso, who is hired to do two jobs: to authenticate a rare manuscript by Alexandre Dumas and to find two remaining copies of a rare book known as De Umbrarum Regni Novem Portis ("Of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows"). Although the people hiring him are two separate people, Corso soon begins to suspect that the two tasks are somehow connected and he travels from Spain to France, Portugal and finally back to Spain to put all the pieces together. Along the way, he encounters people who bear disturbing similarity to certain literary characters, particularly Comte de Rochefort and Milady de Winter from Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers who both seem to be deadly interested in the books that he carries.

For a historical literature fan, the novel is a treasure trove of references towards multiple classics, not only from Dumas, but from the likes of Rafael Sabatini, Leo Tolstoy and many, many others. Personally, I enjoyed best the discussions that the characters had about The Three Musketeers and Dumas' work methods and his style of living. I actually learned several new things about Dumas while I read those. Corso is a very nice character, albeit perhaps not that deeply developed. The descriptions of him looking like a clever rabbit and putting on his "innocent rabbit" face when he needs to persuade someone to like him are very entertaining. Also many of the characters that Corso encounters on his journey - some of whom join him in his quest - are rather intriguing and you'll keep guessing what their ulterior motives are.

I was not very interested in the demonology aspects of the story - unlike apparently Polanski who discarded all the other plotlines and literary references, and based his film only on the demonology storyline - but they certainly worked to keep a certain looming threat over the other events and gave them a sense of urgency. Pérez-Reverte's writing was, for the most part, superb, but there was some repetition especially in how certain characters were described at some points. Now, the other possibly negative points need to be put in spoilers as they concern the ending and certain plot twists close to it. So, do not read the following paragraph (it should be hidden) if you wish to read the novel yourself!


Pérez-Reverte worked seemingly very hard to make it appear as if the two tasks that Corso pursued were interconnected, but it was rather clear to the reader that there was little or no connection between them. Also the ending of the novel was a bit problematic - mainly because the two stories had to be resolved separately and because one of the stories turned out to be very innocent indeed (leading to some clumsy attempts to explain certain characters' behavior). The trick with the ninth woodcut was very nicely woven into the story, but I must admit I kept wondering why Corso did not pay more attention to the discrepancy between the listings and the actual book until the very end.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel very much and I wish Pérez-Reverte's Alatriste novels would resemble this one a bit more. The story progresses nicely, has several intriguing characters, nice amount of action and there's lots and lots of information about Dumas - what more could you ask for?