identify them. That’s not so easy to do,rnbecause the ones who are promotedrn(make that “expensively touted”) are usuallyrn(a euphemism for “almost always”)rnnot the ones to spend hme with. As a rulernof thumb, I suggest that writers representingrnorganized polidcal constituencies orrnidentity groups may be safely neglectedrnwithout even cursory investigation,rnthough the possibilit)- of exception cannotrnbe discounted entirely. You have tornwatch out, too, for writers who are excessivelyrnphotogenic, for a glossy image is oftenrnthe sign of an empty cranium or,rnworse, an empty book.rnThere’s a confusion here between imagernand reality, between money and politics,rnthat’s often referred to as “the publishingrnindustry,” which exists in parallelrnto “the fashion industry,” “the film industry,”rn”the music business,” “politics,”rn”cidture,” and so on. That’s a roundaboutrnway of saying that popular successrnneed be neither popular nor successful,rnin these days of turbo-capitalism. Butrnthat’s not saying that, in simpler days,rnpopular success was not meaningful.rnDumas and Dickens and Balzac stillrncompete powerfiilly for our attention today,rnand for the same reasons that thevrncompeted successfully over a centuryrnand a half ago for the allegiance of readersrnwho now fill many cemeteries.rnDead men don’t wear plaid, and theyrndon’t read novels either, though I thinkrnthey would like to. Modern people are,rnor at least have been, readers of noels,rnand so we have to read them while wernhave the chance. The international successrnof the Spaniard Arturo Perez-Reverternshould be no pretext for ignoring him, as,rnin these perverse davs, it might seem tornbe. Perez-Reverte’s rather shocking appealrnis the ultimate in retro-hip: He is notrnonly a storyteller but one who actuallyrnwrites, as opposed to processing words.rnAnd not just that: He seems to be a consciousrnthrowback to the 19th-centuryrnnarrator, to an essentially romantic conceptionrnof the tale —one who invitesrncomparison with such neo-Vietorians asrnGeorge MacDonald Fraser and A.S. Byatt,rnon the one hand, and Umberto Eco,rnon the other. Finally, Perez-Reverte isrnhis own man, and he should be comparedrnto the writers he loves and whornhave influenced him: Dumas, Balzac,rnCollins, Conrad, John Buchan, the earlyrnGreene, and many another.rnHis fourth novel published in thisrncountry. The Fencing Master, perhapsrngains in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation.rnfor the tide exploits a verbal ambiguityrnthat does not exist in the original, El maestrornde esgrima. I mean that Don JaimernAstarloa, the protagonist, is both a masterrnof fencing and a master who fences, asrnthe word “fencing” equivocates betweenrngerund and participle. However thatrnmay be. The Fencing Master is neither offensivernnor defensive.rnPerez-Reverte has framed his novelsrnaround arcana, areas of expertise that arerngrounds for intrigue: hence, the melodramarnof their unfolding, which is also deceptivelyrnserious. Special knowledge is arnkey to the past, and all of his books are dialecticalrnengagements with the values ofrnthe past and with mystery in its seriousrnsense. The Flanders Panel (1994) dealtrnwith chess and art; The Dumas Clubrn(1997) had to do with bibliophiles andrnnecromancy; The Seville Communionrn(1998) took us through Catholic intriguernand computers. The Fencing Masterrnteaches us a lot about that art and thernhonor that is its attendant value, as well asrnthe political context of late 19th-centuryrnSpain.rnThe Fencing Master blends two storiesrnin order to achieve its dialectical vision.rnDon Jaime likes to keep his distance fromrnlife —he lives for the art of which he is thernmaster. Though the years have passedrnhim by, he still hopes to find “the unstoppablernthrust,” and he finds bv the endrnthat it will have to be improvised in actionrnand not schematically conceived.rnEven at his age and removal from the ordinaryrnworld, he becomes the center ofrnconspiracy, the object of violence, andrnthe subject of seduction. Don Jaime surprisesrnhimself and the reader as he respondsrnwith eervthing that his austererncode has taught him. Let’s say that thisrnline of narrative is melodrama in the bestrn19th-ceutury sense.rnBut it’s the other line, the social-historicalrncontext, that gives the novel its sensernof dialectical engagement. The Madridrnof 1868 is rife with political intrigue.rnThough the Don is reticent, he likes tornhang out with his cronies at the Cafe Progreso,rnwhere the political speculationrnand gossip has a Dostoyevskian twist.rnThe monarchist debates the radical asrnthey swap cliches, and their dialogue existsrnin snc with real social conflict, foreshadowingrnthe Spanish Civil War of thern1930’s. (And, by the way, I thought I detectedrnamong the received opinions ofrnthe left-liberal journalist Carceles anrnecho of the progressive patriotism ofrnFlaubert’s Monsieur Homais.)rnAdd to that Perez-Reverte’s ironic stlernand sly humor, his immersion not onl}- inrnSpain but in Europe, its geography, history,rnand cidture, and you have sophisticatedrnentertainment that is an instruction inrndisguise. Perez-Reverte has sensibility, arnsense of the past, a capacity for irony, andrnthe patience for mystery. The FencingrnMaster, like Perez-Reverte’s other books,rndemonstrates qualities that we woiddrnhave to look a long way for in Americanrnfiction today. The cloak and dagger stuffrnmasks a power of reflection that we mightrncall Cervantean or even Jamesian, butrnwhich should perhaps be called Perez-rnRevertean instead. This estimable author,rnunspoiled by his own success, hasrntransformed himself from a journalist to arngenuine writer, a man of vision. Hernwon’t make Oprah Winfrey’s book list,rnwhich is only one reason he has madernmine.rn].0. Tate is a professor of English atrnDowling College on Long Island.rnHELP THE ROCKFORD INSTITUTE . . .rnHURT THE IRSrnThere is often a tax advantage in making a gift of appreciated stocks orrnbonds to The Rix:kford Institute. When you do, there are two winners:rnyou and The Rockford Institute. The only loser is the wicked andrngreedy tax collector.rnHere’s how it works:rnWhen you sell appreciated securities, you are taxed on the capital gains.rnHowever, if you contribute appreciated stocks or bonds to The RockfordrnInstitute, the gains are not taxable. In fact, you will receive a charitablerndeduction for the full, fair-market value of the securities as of the date of therngift. To qualify, you only have to have held the stocks or bonds for more thanrnone year. Your securities broker can even wire the shares directly to ThernRockford Institute’s investment account.rnFor more information, please call or write:rnChristopher Check, Executive Vice President, at (815) 964-5811rnThe Rockford Institute, 928 North Main Street, Rockford, Illinois 61103rn32/CHRONICLESrnrnrn