Mur­der when art and cul­pa­bil­ity meet

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Cathy Peake

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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