Onyx reviews: The
Nautical Chart by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Manual Coy is happiest when the nearest solid ground is ten miles behind him.
Sailing has been his life; he is adrift on dry land when his Merchant Marine
license is removed after a marine accident occurs during his watch.
Wandering the streets of Barcelona, he ends up at an auction of nautical
objects. Coy's interest is piqued when two bidders engage in a fierce battle
over a century-old atlas. He is especially interested in one of the bidders, a
stunningly attractive woman who possesses an aura of fierce determination.
Shortly after the auction, Coy stumbles across the two bidders in the street.
The man—later revealed to be Nino Palermo—acts threateningly, so Coy
intervenes, though he is neither a brave nor a violent man. Thus he meets the
beautiful and intriguing Tánger Soto and becomes embroiled in her quest—the
search for the Dei Gloria, a Jesuit ship that sank in the Mediterranean in the
Tánger beguiles Coy. He wants to count her freckles. He is out of his depth
with her, he knows, but—like a swimmer caught in a riptide—he cannot help
himself. Tánger dribbles out information, never telling more than necessary to
keep Coy hooked. Coy, an expert navigator learned in the ancient ways of
reckoning, is familiar with the vagaries of 18th century techniques of
specifying marine location. Tánger has the exact latitude and longitude at
which the Dei Gloria sank, but those numbers meant something different in 1767
and the duo sets out on a scholarly mission to translate them into modern
All the while, they must deal with rival Palermo, a man famous for plundering
other marine excavations, and his lethal assistant Horacio Kiskoros, a
knife-wielding Argentinean dwarf. Palermo warns Coy about Tánger and tries to
entice him to become a double agent.
Coy, though not intellectual, is well read and regards his life through literary
references, all of them nautical: Melville and Joseph Conrad. He's a jazz
aficionado. His life's soundtrack is the music of Charlie Bird, Miles Davis and
He is also familiar with The Maltese Falcon, and knows how similar
his situation is to that Hammett classic, rife with betrayal and double-dealing.
Author Arturo Pérez-Reverte is also aware of the similarities, casting Palermo
as the Fatman from the movie version, complete with halting, occasionally
explosive, speech patterns and slimy nature.
It takes over half the book for anyone to get wet, so The Nautical
Chart is only partly a seafaring adventure. Pérez-Reverte takes his time,
building suspense as Coy gets in deeper over his head, suspicious of Tánger's
motives but unable to extricate himself from her. She is the siren upon whose
rocks he is destined to crash, it seems.
Even in translation (from the original Spanish), Pérez-Reverte's prose sings.
This is literary adventure at its finest. The author takes long paragraphs to
paint setting and emotion, something many modern writers eschew. His indulgence
creates a lush and lavish novel that proceeds at its own pace, luxuriating in
If this novel had been published in North America, editors would probably have
tried to cut or condense huge sections of the first half. Thankfully this did
not happen. The Nautical Chart is like a Merchant-Ivory movie, fully
immersed in mood, setting and character. The story carries Coy, Tánger, Palermo
and the others along, deliberately and surely toward their inevitable
confrontation over the wreck of the Dei Gloria as surely as Sam Spade, Cairo,
the Fatman and Bridget would end up meeting around the table in front of the
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