16 Yet more Pérez-Reverte

by Malcolm Redfellow

And now to The Painter of Battles.

This one needed a bit of effort and will-power. It is more cerebral, more introverted, more psychological than the two previous Pérez-Reverte titles. Depending on one’s take, it is either:

The reader feels remarkably distant from these horrors, perhaps because the perpetrators have such drawn-out pseudo-intellectual discussions about who feels the least, who committed the worst wrongs. And perhaps it’s because these discussions are interspersed with cumbersome descriptions of the mural the photographer is painting and how it relates to other works of Western battlefield art…

a game of mental chess, an excursion into art, history and imagination, and both men’s lives as Faulques realises that only the continuation of their discourse, and his painting, is keeping him alive.

It is a dance to the death. For all of us. Pérez-Reverte is an accomplished writer. This is his best book yet, and the best thing I have read all year.

The Painter of Battles is a strange book, much of its material shoehorned cornily into its flashbacks, its central dialogue straining under the moral weight placed upon it; it’s a messy clash between showing and telling. And yet in a way it also becomes the mural of which it tells, drawing a perfectly obsessive, claustrophobic panorama. Few novels display such intensely marshalled powers of extended visual evocation. “Faulques never used pure black,” the prose explains laconically at one point. “That colour created holes, like a bullet or burst of shrapnel on the wall.” Finally, perhaps redemptively, Pérez-Reverte pulls off an ending of such calm tact and art that the reader is left in contemplative silence, circling the images left in his head.

Faulques used to be a prize-winning war photographer (Pérez-Reverte was a war-reporter). Faulques has now retired to a tower on the headland. He hears a woman guide’s voice from the tourist boat that passes each noon:

This place is known as Cala del Arráez. It was once the refuge of Berber pirates. Up there on the top of the cliff you can see an old watchtower that was constructed at the beginning of the eighteenth century as a part of the coastal defense, with the specific purpose of warning nearby villages of Saracen incursions … 

A well-known painter lives in that tower, which stood abandoned for a long time, and he is embellishing the entire interior wall with a large mural. 

Unfortunately, it is private property and no visitors are allowed …

A visitor comes calling from Faulques’s past — the subject of one of his photographs from Vukovar:

“That important prize you won,” said the stranger. “They awarded you the International Press prize for taking my photograph … Have you forgotten that, too?” 

Faulques looked at him with misgivings. He remembered that photograph very well, as well as everyone who appeared in it. He remembered them all, one by one: the three Druse militiamen, all on their feet, eyes blindfolded—two about to drop, one proud and erect—and the six Maronite Kataeb who were executing them at nearly point-blank range. 

Victims and executioners, mountains of the Chouf. Cover of a dozen magazines. His consecration as war photographer five years after having taken up the profession. 

“You couldn’t have been there. The militiamen died, and the ones who shot them were Lebanese Phalangists.” 

The stranger wavered, disconcerted, never taking his eyes off Faulques. He stood absolutely still a few seconds, then shook his head. 

“I’m talking about a different photograph. The one at Vukovar, in Croatia. I always thought they gave you the prize for that one.” 

“No.” Now Faulques studied him with renewed interest. “The Vukovar photo was a different one.” 

“Was it important, too?” 

“More or less.” 

“Well, I’m the soldier in that one.”

The photograph helped to change Faulques’s life, not — as we see here for any prize won, but (as we discover later) for a moment of great loss. It also changed the soldier’s: it identified him hiding with his wife and child in a Serbian village. He saw the wife raped and tortured, and then brutally murdered along with their young child.

That same soldier had seen Faulques photographing a dead woman:

“You weren’t aware that I was there, but I was on the Borovo Naselje road that afternoon. When I heard the explosion I thought it was one of ours. … As I went by I saw you kneeling in the ditch, beside the … body.” 

He had hesitated an instant before that last word, as if pondering whether to choose “corpse” or “body” … and had chosen the latter. 

Now he has come for revenge on Faulques:

“My name? Ivo Markovic.” 

“Why have you come looking for me?” 

The visitor had put the glass down and was wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. 

“Because I’m going to kill you.” 

The only other ingredients of the plot are:

  • Markovic intends to talk through the context of his firm intention with Faulques;
  • Faulques is suffering a terminal ailment:

The pain — a sharp stab in his side over his right hip — arrived every eight or ten hours with reliable punctuality, faithful to their tryst, though this time it came with no warning. Faulques held his breath and didn’t move, to allow time for the first whiplash of pain to end; then he picked up a jar from the table and swallowed two tablets with a sip of water. In recent weeks he’d had to double the dose.

  • We have to wait until the end of the story for the full account of the death of Olvido Ferrara, Faulques’s’ lover. And Faulques’s complicity in it.

The book concludes, predictably, with Faulques’s end — which isn’t so predictable, perhaps. Unless oner has read closely into the clues from the opening pages.

All this is spaced out with deep philosophisings about the nature of war and its treatment in fine art. These may alternatively be, according to taste, drawn-out pseudo-intellectual discussions and cumbersome descriptions of the mural the photographer is painting and how it relates to other works of Western battlefield art.

To be frank, for much of the reading Malcolm tended to the latter interpretation. Consequently he was somewhat struggling with the book for several days. Only when he settled to the last hundred pages, almost as a chore, did the reading come to life.

All in all, then, almost a Marmite experience.