“She was leaving, do you understand? She was already leaving me. Suddenly I wanted to know how far . . . I don’t know. How she was leaving didn’t depend on me. Maybe geometry had something to say on the subject.” —The Painter of Battles, Arturo Perez-Reverte Random House ,2008
The second bleak and slender book I’ve read in 2010 was The Painter of Battles, by Arturo Perez Reverte. The first thing of his I ever read was his fabulous book The Club Dumas. I loved The Flanders Panel, and enjoyed many of the Capitan Alatriste books, but his masterpiece in my opinion is Queen of the South.
The Painter of Battles is a departure, a meditation on war and the art of war, shaped into a short novel.
There are no puzzles or riddles. Like Queen of the South, this is the story of a life, the life of Faulques, an award-winning war photographer who is now a recluse, living in an abandoned watchtower on an island off the coast of Spain. Retired from photography, Faulques is painting a war-themed mural on the inner walls of the tower. One day he is interrupted by Ivo Markovic. Markovic was a Bosnian soldier, and Faulques took a picture of him. The photo won Fualques great acclaim, and it destroyed Markovic’s life.
Markovic has come for revenge. He tells Faulques that he plans to kill him. Before this happens, though, they talk, trading experiences of war and love.
The book draws heavily from Reverte’s own experiences as a war correspondent, and it is clear that the author has struggled through many of the moral questions Faulques begins to ask himself as the story progresses. Faulques consciously approaches his photography in terms of light, shadow and geometry; the same way he approaches the composition of his mural. He is reluctant to let in the thoughts and the memories of the moments before and after the snap of the shutter. Those moments, however, are the ones that truly define him.
As Reverte takes us back through Fualques’s life, we see the photographer through the lens of Olvido, the woman he loves. Olvido is fleeing the world of fashion photography and celebrity. She wants danger, passion, adrenaline, the authentic experience. There may be a death wish there too. At one point, she tells Faulques that her parents fell short by naming her Olvido (I Forget). They should have named her Nadie—No One. Olvido serves the role women characters often do in literary novels by men. She interprets Faulques for us. She is still a character in her own right, a reckless beauty in a war zone.
Balancing Olvido’s—and Faulques’s—narrative is Markovic’s. A soldier in a civil war, Markovic was marked for revenge in his home town when Faulques’s photo, exquisitely described in the book, is published on the cover of an international magazine. He loses everything, even his freedom when he is held as a prisoner of war. Markovic is the living voice that complements the silent photo.
As the book continues, Faulques begins to question his role. He always saw himself as a neutral witness, providing testimony, merely recording the atrocity around him. Through Markovic’s stories, Olvido’s words and his own recollections, he begins to doubt.
Reverte gives us the perfect metaphor in the photographer’s mural. Faulques sees it as an exercise in geometry and imagination, something external to himself, but we can see that he is literally at the center of it. He is right at the center of these images of torture, loss and death. The meticulous prose describes photography and paintings in terms of the vanishing point, the light, the line of sight, reminding us that the light of sight can be the same from a camera lens as from a rifle scope.
Although Reverte does a good job of creating the suspense, the momentum of the plot is not what’s important here. With Faulques, we come to question the role of war photography, war art, war news, the embedded journalist, and our own role as viewers, readers, consumers. Is war inherent in humanity, or does the presence of a witness, a camera, give permission, license to the torturer, the death squad, the soldier? Is this cruelty just ritualized theater, and are we the willing audience?
Unlike Faulques, who takes pictures of the still living and the newly dead, Olvido only photographs artifacts—shattered houses, bombed out cars, broken dolls. Bombarded by these bookend images, the dead and their trappings of life, we rethink our reaction to war. We believe these images are poignant and terrible, that they are teaching moments, but war does not stop because we see them. We do not stop wars because we see them.
Faulques is a well-defined, damaged character who is most alive when he is thinking about art, and who captures our sympathy in spite of ourselves. The book is bleak, deep and thoughtful, helped along with a precise and vivid translation. There are few plot twists; no reader will be surprised by Markovic’s action at the end.
Markovic speaks for every person Faulques has photographed. He has lost everything; home, family and freedom, but he still has his soul. It is up to the reader to decide if the photographer does.