The white queen retreats in disgrace, seeking the protection of a knight who’s own position is far from safe – two black pawns are prowling with malicious intent. Stupid game. There are days when Rogelio Tizon loathes chess, and today is one of those days. With his king pinned, castling is an impossibility; already one rook and two pawns down, he plays on only out of respect for his adversary, Hipolito Barrull, who seems totally relaxed, enjoying himself thoroughly. As usual. The bloodbath on Tizon’s left flank was triggered by his own foolish error: a pawn moved unthinkingly, a narrow opening and suddenly an enemy bishop piercing his home ranks like a dagger, which within a couple of moves has destroyed a Sicilian defence constructed with great patience to little effect.
Welcome to Cadiz, Spain in 1811. A city embodying the last vestiges of a free Spain, not quite crushed under Napoleon’s boot. But it’s hovering over them. Cannons fire every day only the besieged city, and only it’s unfettered access to the sea keeps it alive. If regular cannon fire weren’t enough, young girls start turning up dead and flayed, and Rogelio Tizon, police commissioner, desperate to catch the killer, is caught in a game of chess with the killer, a game that he loses regularly on the board, but cannot afford to lose on the streets.
For some reason I had put this on a wish list for if I ever bought a kindle, but not having been tempted to the dark side just yet I decided to just buy it in paperback and dive in. Pérez-Reverte’s Cadiz is intricate and rich, populated by an array finely detailed characters who, after careful nurturing by the author, are best when mingling with each other on the crowded streets of the beleaguered city.
It is perhaps Tizon who can make a small claim on being the star, and we are introduced to him as he is overseeing a prisoner being tortured for information. For some reason this made me weary of him at first, I mean a divorced alcoholic married to the job is one thing, but a torturer? But I warmed to him, his obsession with the case, trusting his gut instinct when it is completely illogical, as he tries desperately to work out the pattern of the serial killer in his city’s midst. His good friend Barrull, provides justification to feel for Tizon, even if you don’t like him. There is a drive behind the Comisario, and the deaths of the young girls haunt him, reminding him of his own lost daughter.
Moving away from the window, he returns to the desk. Anxious. Prowling like an animal in a cage, he realises. And this does not pleas him. This is not his way. Within him he feels a fury, slender and exact, sharp as a dagger. Professor Barrull’s manuscript still lies on the desk, as though mocking him: ‘here and there I found traces I can identify, but there are others that perplex me’, he reads again. The phrase buries itself in Tizon’s pride like a jagged splinter. In his professional peace of mind. Three girls murdered in the same way within six months. Fortunately for him Governor Villavicencio cuttingly pointed out some weeks ago, the war and the French siege have meant that such crimes have been relegated to the background. But this does little to assuage the comisario’s unease; the curious shame that eats away at him each time he thinks about the case. Each time he sees the mute piano and realises that the murdered girls are almost the same age as the girl who once touched the keys would have been today.
It’s not just Tizon though that we spend The Siege with. Lolita Palma is perhaps my favourite character after the Comisario. A woman succeeding in a man’s world by running her families shipping company, and even her dealing with the Corsair Captain, Pepe Lobo she never loses sight of what is most important in her life, and although she sees the end coming for her and her class, she is still willing to sacrifice in order to save it.
Outside the city, and across the lines we hear from the French, most notably Simon Defossuex, an artillery captain who spends the entire novel trying to get his bombs to the far side of Cadiz to finally take down this last bastion of Spanish freedom.
Into the middle of this world steps the serial killer, who has a set modus operandi that Tizon thinks he has figured out, and tries to flush out. The two are involved in their own game of chess on the streets of Cadiz, a game people barely notice due to the incessant bombing, until the body count starts to mount up and Tizon starts running out of time.
I loved The Siege. Pérez-Reverte sinks you into Cadiz, down to the details of the clothes and daily habits of not just he main characters but the population of a city that knows it is impregnable but still fearfully looks over it’s shoulder. This Cadiz is filled with locals and foreigners, refugees from the war with France which further complicates Tizon’s work. When those in charge start clamouring for the murderer, he knows he is running out of time, but his own fear of never find out drives him deeper into the game with the killer. Meanwhile the other characters flit about their business in the city. Lolita Palma and her business partner commission Pepe Lobo as a Corsair to bring in booty, allowing some beautifully crafted passages on the boat out in the open sea. But even as Tizon closes in on the killer, he senses his time is coming to an end, it all is. The British are forcing the ports open in return for their help and this will ruin the merchants of Cadiz. When close to the end game, Don Cayetano Valdes comments on Tizon and his, methods, that will no longer be tolerated in a new world.
‘Spain has changed,’ he said, before dismissing them from his office. ‘There is no way back, either for you or for me. Perhaps it is best that we all know where we stand.’
Tizon knows he himself is the embers of this time, as does Lolita Palma.
I won’t give away the ending, which I found strangely satisfying, although scant time is paid to the actual murderer and motive when the time comes, and although I’m not sure the Epilogue is required, I can’t work out if I’m glad it was in there or not.
I fell I’ve waffled my way though this review, I just can’t say how much I enjoyed The Siege, Full credit to the translator Frank Wynne, who has done an extraordinary job so that this reads beautifully and engagingly throughout.
For me The Siege has movie written all over it, I’m not sure if a sequel would work, but there is definite scope for some prequels, or even other stories involving Tizon, or even Mojarra or Lolita Palma.
So if I were you I’d transport yourself to a besieged Cadiz in 1811, you, of course, can always escape, but you won’t want to.
Lolita Palma stares at her hands. They are still pretty: she has long, elegant fingers and her nails, though not manicured, are neat. Sanchez Guinea looks at her, his smile pensive. At length, he nods good-naturedly.
‘There’s something about this man…He has spirit, and he is a fascinating character. A little rough around the edges when ashore, perhaps, and you could hardly use the term gentleman. In his dealings with women, for example, he is reputed to be less than scrupulous.’
‘Good Lord, what a dashing portrait you paint of him!’
The old merchant raises his hands in protest
‘I am simply telling you the truth. I know men who despise him and others who worship him. But, as my son says, there are men who would give the shirt off their backs for him.’
‘And the women? What would they give?’
‘That you will have to judge for yourself.’