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THE PAINTER OF BATTLES by Arturo Pérez-Reverte


by Arturo Pérez-Reverte & translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6598-1
Publisher: Random House

Dialectic replaces drama in a different kind of historical suspense novel, an international bestseller published in the U.S. for the first time, from the Spanish author (The Queen of the South, 2004, etc.).

The protagonist, Andrés Faulques, is a celebrated war photographer who, in middle age, has retreated to a watchtower on the Spanish Mediterranean coast to work on a huge circular mural depicting every war ever fought. Channeling the great masters of battle painting (such as Goya, Bruegel and Picasso), Faulques settles into a daily routine that includes swimming in the sea, listening to a female tour guide (who includes him among the region’s attractions) and fighting off pain from the incurable illness (doubtless cancer) that is killing him. Then one day a visitor arrives: a Croatian named Ivo Markovic. Markovic is a former soldier whose image happened to be captured in one of the photographs that made Faulques rich and famous. Markovic reveals that the photograph, widely shown during wartime, was employed by Croatia’s Serbian enemies, soldiers who hunted down Markovic’s family, raped and tortured his wife and murdered her and their young son. The occluded morality of art and the artist thus becomes the subject of daily conversations between the two men, after the Croatian has informed the photographer that he has come to kill him. Despite the beauty of Peden’s lucid translation and the tension implicit in contrasts between Markovic’s emotion and Faulques’s stoical fatalism, the novel becomes static—clogged with colloquies about the “Butterfly Effect” (it states that a small action innocently performed can resonate dangerously around the world) and the exploitative element in fashioning beautiful images from human suffering (most piercingly in Faulques’s hesitantly shared recollection of Olvido, his former female colleague and lover—and the subject of his camera’s insistent eye).

Pérez-Reverte ends the novel imaginatively, but not soon enough to rescue it from portentousness and redundancy. The author has done and can do better than this.