Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Nautical Noir: Pérez-Reverte's The Nautical Chart

Fred MacMurray in the classic Double Indemnity

Film noir may or may not be a genre, but its conventions are well known.  The pulp fiction storylines.  The stark black and white and those telltale shadows.  The sharp dialogue and plot twists.  I don't think I am alone, however, in thinking that the core of film noir is its worldview.  Whether the protagonists are detectives or common Joes, all suffer from the same malady, the same fate, variations on a philosophical theme.  Noir posits that even the good guys aren't safe, or maybe there are no good guys at all.  Betrayal is unavoidable.  Betrayal is perhaps the meaning of life, the denouement of anyone's storyline.  You won't win.  You won't break even.  You will, sometime, in the end, lose.  And it's probably the fault of a dame.

G'Ma gave me Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Nautical Chart once she was done with it, which was not long after I had finished the previously reviewed Captain Alatriste.  Soon after I started, I figured out that I needed to read this as a noir.  The two main characters are archetypal.  Our antihero, pulled out of his common life into dark schemes, is Coy, a sailor who has essentially been framed for the wreck of a vessel and has thus been separated from ships, his livelihood, his passion, and his escape.  He is desperate.  Enter the femme fatale, Tánger, a maritime historian who is in fact a notorious treasure hunter.  Coy falls for the woman--her sex, her mind, her balance of fragility and confidence, and her romantic view of the sea.  The noir types keep going:  the competition, the hit man.

The third main character, however, is the sea itself.  The titular chart is Hitchcock's MacGuffin.  This leads, supposedly, to the long-lost wreck of a Jesuit ship; why exactly this is important and profitable is one of the initial mysteries of the book.  The ocean means much more than this.  It is described with loving and longing by the author and his main character.  There is modern sailing and imaginings of the age of xebecs and brigantines.  I can't quite find proof online that Pérez-Reverte is a sailor himself.  He certainly knows his lore and terminology.  Moreover, he seems to love the sea, but it is a noir love.  With due reference, Coy is the sailor who fell from grace with the sea.

Sunset over Cartagena, Spain, one of the book's main locations.  Pic by lamangazul.

The Nautical Chart is thus a very special combination of noir and nautical fiction.  It is NOT a quick read.  The author spends a lot of time on description, mood, and the protagonist's feelings and thoughts.  The film in my head alternates between the closeups and tight spaces of noir and sweeping shots of the Spanish coast and the open Mediterranean, with flashbacks both to Coy's past and the voyage of the old Jesuit ship.  Another noir standard, the voiceover, could work for the contemplative Coy.   The plot, honestly, could handle some compression.  There's an Indy-like adventure that could played up more without losing the noir feel.  As for the imaginary score, Pérez-Reverte makes that easy:  The antihero loves jazz, and how noir is that?

Pérez-Reverte seems to have a thing for noir.  It was in Captain Alatriste but cloaked in old Spanish pathos.  The Nautical Chart is sort of a noir for O'Brian fans; being a nautical buff adds a whole new level of enjoyment to the book.  As a noir film, it would be less The Maltese Falcon and more Double Indemnity.  Ah, and the Spanish have, indeed, already made a movie, but unlike Alatriste I don't think we'll ever see an American release.  Coy is played by Carmelo Gómez, who really doesn't look (from the pictures) like I imagined him.  Maybe I'm just fixated on the freckles connection to Tánger, but I can see Julianne Moore as the femme fatale (or maybe it's just because Julianne Moore is awesome).  What is clear to me is that Pérez-Reverte, using elements of film noir but with a weather eye to the sea, is very adept in this book at creating a full picture, filled with characters, scenery, and emotion.  It is a novel worth seeing.

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