... real freedom, the only possible freedom, the true peace of God, began five miles from the nearest coast.Took this with me to read in Barcelona, since that's where the novel starts: with Manuel Coy, a sailor stranded on shore after running a ship onto uncharted rocks, attending a maritime auction. At the auction he notices a beautiful woman (Tanger Soto) bidding -- against fierce and apparently hostile competition from a menacing pony-tailed man and a malicious dwarf -- for a 17th-century nautical atlas. She wins, but Coy has to intervene in a potentially nasty situation outside. Buys her a drink, or two. Falls in love. Sells his one valuable and treasured possession, his sextant, to buy a train ticket to Madrid, where he tracks down Tanger at work in the Museo Maritime and finds out why she really wants the chart -- to help her find the wreck of the Dei Gloria, a Jesuit ship sunk by pirates off the coast of Spain in 1767.
Unsurprisingly there is treasure aboard.
And Coy, not only a sailor but an experienced diver who knows that part of the coast well, is just the man to help Tanger with her quest. The fact that he's given to solving problems with violence, and has what one might term poor impulse control, probably doesn't hurt.
The Nautical Chart is peppered with references to nautical classics: Coy thinks of himself as being in the Conrad phase of his life ("all heroes authorised to move through that terrain were weary heroes, more or less lucid, aware of the danger of dreaming when at the helm"), having previously lived a Stevenson period and a Melville period. I warmed to him as soon as he showed evidence of being an O'Brian fan. Plenty of nautical metaphors, too, and an interesting backstory for the Dei Gloria's last fateful voyage -- just before the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain ...
I wasn't entirely satisfied with this book: the action seemed to be propelled artificially, with Coy threatening to walk away every time the action slowed, and Tanger drip-feeding some more information. And the ending seemed flat and abrupt, though I do wonder if it's meant to illustrate just how blinkered Coy can be and has been, just how unwilling to face the facts. Just how blinded by love (for Tanger, and more convincingly for the sea) he has been.
Apparently the plot echoes The Maltese Falcon, but it's a long long time since I saw the film ... so that's a layer of significance (and possibly an extra dimension of emotional depth, of twisting and transforming the characters and themes) that I missed.
Occasionally I found myself noticing the translation, as though the translator was struggling to put into English a phrase that flowed in the original Spanish. And when the actual narrator, the first-person voice who claims to be telling this story, finally made an appearance (".. the story of the lost ship, and of Coy, the sailor banished from the sea, and of Tanger, the woman who returned him to it, seduced me from the start ...") I found him irritating and sly.
Packed with action and with plot -- and some excellent nautical detail, like the storm at sea, and going overboard, and the perils of night-sailing in busy waters -- but curiously empty.