Murder when art and culpability meet
ONCE a war correspondent, now a fulltime fiction writer and member of the Spanish Royal Academy, Arturo PerezReverte is a virtuoso exponent of suspense and the literary thriller. His previous books The Club Dumas, The Queen of the South and The Painter of Battles are bestsellers in Spain and France. He should be better known in the English- speaking world.
Set on a wild, coastal cliff in Spain, this latest work explores the great themes of human existence in a speculative, anguished interrogation of the repercussions of a love affair and a terrible betrayal, through the lens of painting, art history, imagination and the realities of war.
The character of the title, Andres Faulques, is a celebrated war photographer turned mural painter, famous for his ability to capture horror, beauty and geometry in a single image. Faulques is obsessed by what may be described as the architecture of chance, ‘‘ the geometric caprices of the universe, Jupiter’s contemptuous thunderbolt that, precise as a scalpel guided by invisible hands, strikes at the very heart of man and his life’’.
He has purchased an abandoned watchtower
and has carefully restored the interior of its circular drum, where he is painting a mural: an enormous battle scene in which he hopes to capture the image that he believes eludes all photography. Taking up the entire wall space of the ground floor in a continuous panorama 25m in circumference and almost 3m in height, the mural is ‘‘ a work without a future’’, to be abandoned on completion.
Faulques has spent years in preparation, visiting museums and studying the masters of battle painting: Goya, Breughel, Uccello — especially Uccello — and many others. He has made the tower habitable, taking up residence in a spartan room above, and lives surrounded by ‘‘ hundreds of notes and books, thousands of images, piled everywhere, around and inside Faulques, in the tower and in his memory’’.
Each morning he swims 150 strokes out to sea and back again. His hermetic life is regulated by routine. Enter Ivo Markovic, a stranger who knocks on the door of the tower ( on page 32) and announces he has come to kill him. A Croatian soldier and the subject of one of Faulques’s award- winning photos, its publication coinciding with the fall of Vukovar, Markovic’s image was titled The Face of Defeat and judged to be ‘‘ the symbol of all soldiers of all wars’’. It changed Faulques’s life. It also changed Markovic’s, and before he kills him he needs to talk to Faulques, wanting him to understand the terrible consequences of the photograph that destroyed his family and his life.
The subsequent narrative plays out like a fateful game of chess where the stakes rise inexorably and the time frame for their conversation, and Faulques’s life, is dictated by his ability to keep painting and to keep their discourse alive. As the mural slowly comes into focus like a photographic negative in a sea of developer, it binds them together, becoming the prompt for the novel’s most probing questions, triggering mysterious, searching and often harrowing reminiscences from both men.
A tracing of the emotional temperature of The Painter of Battles would not be wildly undulating. The incidents are small — Faulques’s eye calculating the distance between himself and a length of piping that he might use to resist Markovic’s attack, the stabbing pain in his right hip that he needs to medicate every eight hours, the brief moments when the men’s eyes meet with a measure of understanding — but the tensions they generate, heightened by the threat of murder announced so early, are intense.
Slowly the men find a fragile sympathy and understanding for each other that is enigmatic and compelling, but never stable. The sustained dimension of suspense makes sure of that; indeed, everything about their situation is unstable and unreliable. A crack appears in the ancient wall of the watchtower and runs right through the painting. It is never clear when Markovic will reach for his knife, or even if he will do so.
Faulques’s mural cannot achieve the definitive image he seeks, but in a curious, different and immensely erudite way, this novel can, and does. The Painter of Battles is a tour de force. Cathy Peake is a literary critic and writer based in Braidwood, NSW.