The Club Dumas

[Ed. Note: We are pleased to once again welcome Brad to Two Dudes. We were initially skeptical about this review, falling more into “Fantastic Literature” than our usual purview. Brad convinced us, however, because Pep owes him favors and this is a fabulous book anyway. Enjoy.]

The Club Dumas
Arturo Perez-Reverte

I hadn’t planned on reviewing The Club Dumas for this inestimable blog.  Quite honestly, I’m not sure that it fits within Two Dudes’ stated purpose of providing “informed reviews, profound commentary, ribald and witty conversation, and insightful snark about all things Science Fiction and Fantasy.”  But people who know me (a mercifully tiny but highly exclusive group) also know of my deep and sincere admiration for Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte.  After Umberto Eco, the godfather of the “literary thriller,” Sr. Perez-Reverte is its foremost living practitioner.  Beginning in the late 1980s, highly literate, intelligent, tightly-constructed thrillers emerged from his pen about one every two years:  The Fencing Master, The Nautical Chart, The Flanders Panel, The Seville Communion (my personal favorite), The Queen of the South, The Painter of Battles, and the title reviewed, The Club Dumas.  Perez-Reverte has also produced an a more straightforward adventure series, set during the Thirty Years’ War in the Spanish Netherlands, whose protagonists are the war hero Captain Diego Alatriste y Tenorio, and his redoubtable sidekick Iñigo.  Not one of these titles is either science fiction or fantasy, although some of them, like The Club Dumas, deal with the fantastic.  Each one is superb.

Perez-Reverte’s work has an impeccable pedigree. In 1980, Umberto Eco released his great novel, The Name of the Rose; translated from the original Italian, it was published in its English version in 1983.  Haunting the pages of The Name of the Rose is another book—the supposedly lost second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics—for whose secrets a sinister group of Benedictine monks were willing to kill each other and anyone else who got in the way.

The book was a smashing success.  The big publishing houses suddenly discovered a segment of the reading public that thoroughly enjoyed books about books:  hidden books, secret books, lost books that had been found, suppressed books, books containing secret histories, books of magic, subversive books, books whose contents threatened civilization as we know it, books that could bring down Christianity, books to summon Satan himself.[1]  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in this way many authors “flattered” the great Professor Eco.  Needless to say, Eco’s imitators and spurious godchildren produced works of wildly varying quality.

We’re going to by-pass Dan Brownish mediocrity and head to the top of the authorial heap, right next to the Master himself, where we find the redoubtable Spaniard Arturo Perez-Reverte.  I’ve read everything of his that I can get my hands on, both in English translation and in Perez-Reverte’s native Spanish.  It’s all good!  In fact, it’s all great (although I was slightly disappointed in The Flanders Panel—the ending was just a little too contrived, and it felt like Perez-Reverte was struggling just a bit).  First among equals are The Seville Communion and The Club Dumas.[2]

So let’s talk about The Club Dumas.  It has several plot lines that Perez-Reverte deftly weaves together:  The one from which the book’s title is taken involves a mysterious manuscript that may or may not be a missing Alexander Dumas autograph for a chapter in The Three Musketeers.  But the more fascinating plot line, one that  overshadows everything else, deals with a suppressed book—-The Nine Doors to the Kingdom of Shadows.[3]  This (fictional) book, published by an obscure Venetian in 1666, supposedly contained a ritual for summoning the Devil himself.  The author and publisher, Aristide Torchia, fell into the not-too-gentle hands of the Inquisition, was condemned as a sorcerer, and burned at the stake in 1667.  The Inquisition was thought to have destroyed all copies of The Nine Doors, but surprise!  Three copies survived; humanity still has within its grasp the infernal rituals to open forever the Kingdom of Shadows and unleash Ol’ Scratch Hisself on an unsuspecting world, if only somebody can decipher Torchia’s coded messages and inscrutable instructions.  Can I get an ominous-sounding chord here, along with a portentous tympani roll?

The protagonist, Lucas Corso, is a middle-aged rare book dealer and book detective, suitably weary, battered and bruised, careworn and cynical.  (Selling used books has a way of doing that—I should know!)  His client, Varo Borja, a multi-millionaire and unscrupulous book collector, has acquired one of the three surviving copies of The Nine Doors.  (Question:  Is Varo Borja a literary allusion to the great Argentinian writer/philosopher Jorge Luis Borges, who writes about the fantastic with such felicity and wit?  Or perhaps he’s the reincarnation of that dogmatic guardian of orthodoxy Jorge of Burgos, the villain in Eco’s Name of the Rose, which I have already praised to the heavens (and which makes a surprise appearance at The Club Dumas’ stunning conclusion)?  Little touches like this abound in Perez-Reverte’s jewel.) 

Borja, though not the most appealing character in the book, is no fool.  Through his network of book scouts and rare book dealers, he has discovered that of the three surviving copies of The Nine Doors, two may be forgeries, leaving only one of them as the authentic work—a label that immediately challenges the postmodern shibboleths of authorial intention and the independent life of the text.  So Borja’s request of Corso is straightforward:  Find the other two copies of The Nine Doors; acquire them for Borja by any means, fair or foul; and in the process determine which of the three copies is genuine.  And while you’re at it, Señor Corso, here’s a ton of money to throw at the problem to help you grease the skids just a bit.  Simple, no?  An afternoon’s stroll in the park.

Only, surprise . . . it isn’t so simple.  In fact, it nearly costs Corso much more than he’s willing to pay.

The result is one of the most sophisticated literary thrillers I have ever read.  It is, in every sense of the phrase, a tour de force.  Perez-Reverte recreates the seamy underside of the rare book world with skill and flair.  He patiently leads the reader along the primrose path to a plausible solution, and then when the reader’s guard is down, the author deftly stabs him (or her) in the back—a knife job that never felt so good.  In the process, the lines between reality and fantasy blur:  Corso may or may not have angelic help in his quest; he may or may not have a direct confrontation with infernal powers; Borja may or may not be who he seems, a foolish rich greed-head; or he may be something/someone else altogether—and altogether much more sinister.  The solution to this complex thriller is ingenious, it holds together, it doesn’t require an implausible deus ex machina, and it showcases Perez-Reverte’s skill as a story-teller and writer.

As a bonus, the book contains many cool visual representations that look like something between a classic Rider-Waite Tarot deck and Albrecht Durer engravings from the 15th and 16th centuries.  These add to the reading experience:  Not only does the reader participate in unpacking the contextual puzzles as Corso slowly sorts out the truth concerning the three competing versions of the Nine Doors to the Kingdom of Shadows (an anti-Derridian notion if ever there was one), these engravings add to the otherworldly ambiance that Perez-Reverte’s prose induces and remind us there was a time and place when secret instructions for summoning Satan were not only taken seriously, the possession of the same could result in excruciating pain and death inflicted by the State at the Church’s behest.

My unqualified suggestion:  Beg, borrow, buy or steal a copy of this book.  Then read it.  (Sorry, that was two suggestions.  My bad.)  If, like me, you find yourself enthralled by Perez-Reverte’s story-telling skills, then read The Seville Communion for dessert.  (It’s about a little Roman Catholic church building in Seville that one-by-one, kills the very people who have been commissioned to tear the building down.  THAT’S an interesting idea!)

Rating: Barcelona with all cylinders firing against anyone else.  Really, the book is that good!  (P.S.  The movie is good, too.  It’s not exactly the book, but weaves a spell of its own.  Plus, it has Johnny Depp.  What more need I say?)

Musical assistance for this review:  For the initial write-up:  Swedish black metalers Watain, who are “Sworn to the Dark.”  For the re-write:  Austrian black metal-industrial Abigor’s CD “Channeling the Quintessence of Satan.”  There are Durer-like engravings and paintings throughout the booklet that comes with CD; they look very much like the art materials in The Club Dumas.  And Abigor’s subject matter complements The Nine Doors.  Who could ask for more from his black metal?

[1]H.P. Lovecraft is a generation earlier; his Necronomicon (the “Book of the Law of the Dead”) may have come to him in a dream in 1937, as he said.  On the other hand, there are many who are completely willing to believe the Necronomicon, the blasphemous book of the blackest magic, the fevered scribblings of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, is objectively real.  Numerous “editions” have been published.

[2]The Club Dumas was the basis for the Johnny Depp movie, The Ninth Gate, involving a renegade rare book dealer searching for the infernal book.  The movie more or less tracks the “magical book” plot line from the book The Club Dumas, although there are major differences.  Nonetheless, I recommend the movie whole-heartedly, partly because of Depp, partly because it’s a great entertainment, and partly because I want to expose Perez-Reverte’s writings to as broad an audience as possible.

[3]The Nine Doors is solely a product of the author’s fecund imagination!  Although there are many grimoires (books of ritual magic) that were in existence in the mid- to late-17th century, The Nine Doors isn’t one of them—it’s fictional!  If you want to know about grimoires that were around at the relevant time, check out Owen Davies, Grimoires:  A History of Magic Books (New York/Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2009); or P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, The Occult in Mediaeval Europe, 500-1500:  A Documentary History (Basingstoke, UK:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Scholars of the occult Stephen Skinner and Joseph Peterson, working independently, have produced updated editions of many of the infamous grimoires in existence in the late medieval and early Renaissance periods.  Most of their editions are still available through the major on-line booksellers.  Older editions of some of these grimoires were produced by English occult scholar Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, acting alone or with the famous mage Aleister Crowley.  Practicing occultist Donald Tyson has specialized in the works of the late Renaissance mage Agrippa (Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim), whose Three Books of Occult Philosophy made their appearance in 1531, and were first translated into English in 1651, and whose Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy showed up in 1655.

The point of this lengthy footnote is that there were many, many, grimoires floating around at or about the time the fictional Nine Doors made its appearance.  The latter was distinctive, not for the fact it purported to be another book of magic, but because it didn’t beat around the bush.  It had one purpose only:  To summon up the Devil!