15 More Pérez-Reverte
by Malcolm Redfellow
The Flanders Panel
Take a real, but obscure Flemish painter — Pieter Huys. Invent for him an atypical indoor scene:
The Game of Chess, oil on wood, painted in 1471 by Pieter Van Huys… It was a domestic interior painted in minute fifteenth-century detail, the sort of scene with which the great Flemish masters, using oil for the first time, had laid the foundations of modern painting. The main subjects were two gentlemen of noble appearance, in their middle years, sitting on either side of a chessboard on which a game was in progress.
In the background to the right, next to a lancet window framing a landscape, a lady, dressed in black, was reading the book that lay in her lap. Completing the scene were the painstaking details typical of the Flemish school, recorded with a perfection that bordered on the obsessive: the furniture and decorations, the black-and-white tiled floor, the design on the carpet, a tiny crack in the wall, the shadow cast by a minuscule nail in one of the ceiling beams. The painting of the chessboard and chess pieces was executed with the same precision as the faces, hands and clothes of the people depicted, with a realism that contributed to the painting’s extraordinarily fine finish, its colours still brilliant despite the inevitable darkening caused by the gradual oxidation of the original varnish.
This is being studied by Julia, a restorer preparing the panel for auction. X-rays have revealed:
At the bottom of the painting, brought to light after five centuries, thanks to radiography, was the hidden phrase, its Gothic characters standing out in sharp contrast against the black and white of the plate.
QUIS NECAVIT EQUITEM
Julia knew enough Latin to be able to translate it without a dictionary: Quis, interrogative pronoun meaning “who”, necavit, from neco, “to kill”, and equitem, the accusative singular of eques, “knight”. Who killed the knight? Adding a question mark, which, in Latin, the use of quis rendered redundant, lent the phrase an air of mystery.
No messing about: just four hundred words into the fiction, and already we have the central character and the MacGuffin: Who killed the knight? The clue is already there in that description of the painting.
Julia’s ex-lover is used to move the story along:
“Here you are,” he said, and Julia clung to the sound of his voice like a drowning woman to a piece of wood, knowing, with relief, that she couldn’t do two things at once: remember him as he was then and listen to him now. With no regret, her feelings of nostalgia were immediately left behind, and the relief on her face must have been so patent that he looked at her, surprised, before turning his attention back to the page of the book.
Julia glanced at the title: Switzerland, Burgundy and the Low Countries in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.
“Look.” Alvaro was pointing at a name in the text. Then he transferred his finger to the photograph of the painting she had placed on the table.
“FERDINANDUS OST. D. is the identifying inscription of the chess player on the left, the man dressed in red. Van Huys painted The Game of Chess in 1471, so there’s no doubt about it. It’s Ferdinand Altenhoffen, the Duke of Ostenburg, Ostenburguensis Dux, born in 1435, died in… yes, that’s right, in 1474. He was about thirty-five when he sat for the painter.”
Julia had picked up a card from the table and was pointing at what was written there.
“Where was Ostenburg?… In Germany?”
Alvaro shook his head and opened a historical atlas.
“Ostenburg was a duchy that corresponded, more or less, to Charlemagne’s Rodovingia… It was here, inside the Franco-German borders, between Luxembourg and Flanders. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Ostenburg dukes tried to remain independent, but ended up being absorbed, first by Burgundy and then by Maximilian of Austria. In fact, the Altenhoffen dynasty died out with this particular Ferdinand. If you like, I can make you some photocopies.”
“I’d be very grateful.”
“It’s no trouble.” Alvaro sat back in his chair, took a tin of tobacco from a drawer in the desk and started filling his pipe. “Logically, the lady by the window, with the inscription BEATRIX BURG. OST. D. can only be Beatrice of Burgundy, the Duke’s consort. See? Beatrice married Ferdinand Altenhoffen in 1464, when she was twenty-three.”
“For love?” asked Julia with an enigmatic smile, looking at the photograph. Alvaro responded with a brief, rather forced smile of his own.
“As you know, very few marriages of this kind were love matches… The wedding was an attempt by Beatrice’s uncle, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, to create closer ties with Ostenburg in an alliance against France, which was trying to annex both duchies.”
The knight is similarly fingered:
“Look at this. Roger de Arras, born in 1431, the same year in which the English burned Joan of Arc at the stake in Rouen. His family were related to the Valois, the reigning dynasty in France at the time, and he was born in the castle of Bellesang, very near the duchy of Ostenburg.”
“Could he be the second chess player?”
“Possibly. AR would be exactly right for the abbreviation of Arras. And Roger de Arras appears in all the chronicles of the time. He fought in the Hundred Years’ War alongside the King of France, Charles VII. See? He took part in the conquest of Normandy and Guyenne to win them back from the English. In 1450 he fought in the battle of Formigny and three years later at the battle of Castillon. Look at this engraving. He might well be one of those men; perhaps he’s the knight with his visor down, offering his horse in the midst of the fray to the King of France, whose own horse has been killed, but who continues to fight on foot…”
“You amaze me, Professor,” Julia said, looking at him with open astonishment. “I mean that picturesque image of the warrior in the battle. You were the one who always said that imagination is the cancer of historical rigour.”
Alvaro is promptly offed:
found in his bathtub with a broken neck, presumably from slipping while taking a shower.
All whodunnits are mind-games. This novel uses the device of unravelling the painting’s unfinished chess-game as the stages towards revealing the mystery. While mysterious messages turn up, developing the chess-game, Julia is taken by her friend and mentor, Cesar, to meet a supreme chess-player, Munoz, to decode the game in the painting. The fifteenth and the twentieth centuries parallel each other with the disappearance of the painting and the murder of Menchu Roch, the gallery-owner who is negotiating the sale of the painting.
The clues are there:
Julia sighed gently.
“If someone had told me that one day I’d be tracking a possible murderer with the help of a chessboard, I’d have said he was stark, staring mad.”
“I told you before that there are many links between chess and police work.” Munoz’s hand moved chess pieces in the void. “Even before Conan Doyle, there was Poe’s Dupin method.”
“Edgar Allan Poe? Don’t tell me he played chess too.”
“Oh, yes, he was a very keen player. There was an automaton known as Maelzel’s Player which almost never lost a game. Poe wrote an essay about it around 1830. To get to the bottom of the mystery he developed sixteen analytical approaches and concluded that there must be a man hidden inside the automaton.”
The mysterious messages, of course, emanate from the murderer, who is one of the tight circle we have already met. In this case, there is a computer programme behind the killer’s skilled chess-play :
“His name is Alfa PC-1212. He’s a personal computer with a complex chess programme with twenty levels of play. I bought it the day after killing Alvaro…
All this time you’ve been playing against a simple computer, a machine with no emotions or feelings. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that it’s a delicious paradox, a perfect symbol of the times we live in. Maelzel’s prodigious player had a man hidden inside, according to Poe. Do you remember? But times change, my friend. Now it’s the automaton that hides inside the man.””
It is often the case that the MacGuffin gets lost in the complications of the plot. That is so here. As with most murders, there is a sordid motive, with a silver lining. Much is left unresolved by the conclusion of the novel — and then there is a quite remarkable animadversion back to that painting:
The sound of her footsteps echoes in the empty cloister, beneath the vaulted roof already plunged in shadow. The final rays of the setting sun fall almost horizontally, filtered through the stone shutters, staining red the convent walls, the empty niches, the ivy leaves turned yellow by the autumn curling about the capitals of the columns, the monsters, warriors, saints, mythological beasts that support the grave, Gothic arches surrounding the garden invaded by weeds. The wind howls outside, warning of the cold northern weather that always precedes winter, whirling up the side of the hill, where it shakes the branches of the trees and draws from the gargoyles and the eaves of the roof the boom of centuries-old stone; it sets the bronze bells in the tower swaying and, above them, a creaking, rusty weathervane points obstinately south, a south that is perhaps luminous, distant and inaccessible.
The woman dressed in mourning stops by a mural eaten away by time and damp. Only a few fragments of the original colours remain: the blue of a tunic, the ochre outline of a figure; a hand cut off at the wrist, one index finger pointing up at a nonexistent sky, a Christ whose features meld into the crumbling plaster of the wall; a ray of sun or of divine light, with no origin or destination, suspended between heaven and earth, a segment of yellow light absurdly frozen in time and space, which the years and the weather have gradually worn away, until one day it will be extinguished or erased, as if it had never even been there. And an angel with no mouth and a frown like that of a judge or an executioner, of whom one can only make out, amongst what remains of the paint, a pair of wings stained with lime, a fragment of tunic and the vague shape of a sword.
The woman dressed in mourning lifts the black veils that cover her face and looks for a long time into the eyes of the angel. For eighteen years she has stopped here every day at the same hour and she sees the ravages of time gnawing away at what remains of that painting. She has watched it disappear little by little, as if afflicted by a leprosy that tears off lumps of flesh, that blurs the figure of the angel, so that it blends with the dirty plaster of the wall, with the damp that causes the colours to blister, that cracks and fragments the images. Where she lives there are no mirrors. They are forbidden by the order she entered, or that perhaps she was obliged to enter. Like the painting on the wall, her memory contains more and more blanks. She has not seen her own face for eighteen years, and for her that angel, who doubtless once possessed a beautiful face, is the only external reference to the effect of passing time on her own features: peeling paint instead of wrinkles, blurred outlines instead of ageing skin. In the occasional moments of lucidity that arrive like waves licking the sands of a beach, moments to which she clings, desperately trying to fix them in her confused, ghost-ridden memory, she seems to recall that she is fifty-four years old.
From the chapel comes a chorus of voices, the sound muffled by the thickness of the walls, voices singing the praises of God before going to the refectory. The woman dressed in mourning has permission not to attend certain services and at that hour they allow her to walk alone, like a dark, silent shadow, in the deserted cloister. A long rosary of dark wooden beads hangs from her belt, a rosary she has not touched for some time. The distant religious singing becomes confused with the whistling of the wind.
When she starts walking again and reaches the window, the dying sun is just a bright smudge of red in the distance, beneath leaden clouds coming from the north. At the foot of the hill there is a broad grey lake that glitters like steel. The woman rests her thin, bony hands on the ledge of a lancet window – again, as on every evening, her memories pitilessly return – and she feels how the cold from the stone rises up her arms and approaches, slowly, dangerously, her worn-out heart. She is seized by a terrible fit of coughing that shakes her fragile body undermined by the damp of so many winters, tortured by seclusion, solitude and intermittent memories. She no longer hears the songs from the chapel or the sound of the wind. Now it is the sad, monotonous music of a mandolin that emerges from the mists of time, and the harsh autumnal horizon vanishes before her eyes to form, as if in a painting, another landscape: a gentle undulating plain and in the distance, silhouetted against the blue sky as if painted by a fine brush, the slender outline of a belfry. And suddenly she seems to hear the voices of two men sitting at a table, the echo of laughter. And she thinks that if she turns round, she will see herself sitting on a stool with a book in her lap, and that when she looks up, she will see the gleam of a steel gorget and an insigne representing the Golden Fleece. And an old man with a grey beard will smile at her while, brush in hand, he paints on an oak panel, with the quiet skill of his profession, the eternal image of that scene.
For an instant, the wind rips asunder the covering of clouds, and a final gleam of light, reverberating across the waters of the lake, illuminates the woman’s ageing face, dazzles her eyes, which are clear and cold and almost lifeless. Then, as the light dies, the wind seems to howl louder still, stirring the black veils that flap about her like the wings of a crow. She feels again that sharp pain gnawing at her, inside, near her heart, a pain that paralyses half her body and that nothing can alleviate. It freezes her limbs, her breath.
The lake is nothing but a dull smudge in the shadows. And the woman dressed in mourning, whom the world knew as Beatrice of Burgundy, knows that the winter advancing from the north will be her last. And she wonders if, in the dark place to which she is heading, there will be enough mercy to erase from her mind the final shreds of memory.
As this little tour may suggest, The Flanders Panel “got” to Malcolm. He cannot pretend to comprehend the movements of the chess-pieces. Fortunately that is not essential to comprehending the plot. Typical for Pérez-Reverte, there is only the one strong central character, with a lot of supporting roles.
Not brilliant, just good. And one heck of an easier read than what comes next.