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Portrait of the artist as a samurai warrior

Steven Poole - The Guardian - 24/11/2015

Arturo Pérez-Reverte's claustrophobic meditation on art and violence, The Painter of Battles, impresses Steven Poole.

The Painter of Battles
by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
218pp, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99

A man lives alone, in a crumbling tower by the sea. On its interior wall, he is painting a vast circular mural of war, melding histories and landscapes into a singular nightmare. One day a stranger arrives, and announces that he intends to kill the painter. Instead of punching the man, fleeing or informing the police, the painter takes the news phlegmatically, continuing to work on his mural while receiving the visitor each day for a series of long, philosophical conversations on the nature of art and war.

Such is the curious setup of this novel. There is no point complaining of implausibility, since if the painter had reacted otherwise, this particular story wouldn't exist, and it is this story we have in front of us. Other fictions are based on similar theatrical conceits: perhaps Sandor Marai's Embers, in which two men converse in a castle to reveal one's betrayal, long ago, by the other; or the sly entertainment of another two-hander, Gilbert Adair's A Closed Book. But here Pérez-Reverte - the author of some delicious novels constructed around enigmas in chess or painting, and the series of elegant swashbucklers starring Captain Alatriste - is composing in a more minor and less ludic key.

The painter, Faulques, used to be a war photographer, and his memories of those times form the meat of the novel. (The publishers tell us that Pérez-Reverte drew on his own experience as a war correspondent.) These scenes - in Beirut, Croatia, Chad, Kuwait - are drawn with a terrible precision, beautifully rendered, and yet within them Pérez-Reverte manages to argue also that the beauty is a problem. Paying intense attention to light and colour, allowing Faulques to recall the exact technical details of the f-stops and shutter-speeds he used, he simultaneously draws the reader's gaze over the photographer's shoulder to the killers and victims who appeared to him more as material than as human beings.

The novelist implicates himself, too, in the callousness he depicts in Faulques, using suffering to make art, even as he also indicates what Faulques has to leave out of his work: "What there was no way to photograph was the buzzing of flies - they won all the battles." The strategy can result in moments of powerful, seductive nihilism. On one job, Faulques photographs a group of prisoners who are tied up by a river and left to be eaten by crocodiles. Later, safe in a restaurant, he thinks of all humanity as "rational meat lying in the sun".

But the novel, it seems, does not quite trust the texture of its own painting, and writes explicatory notes to the exhibition. The framing story - that of the present-day conversations between Faulques and the stranger - spells out all the concerns about the ethics of representation that are already eddying, with productive stealth, through the muddy ochres, winter greys and scarlets of the war scenes. The visitor who proclaims his intention to murder the artist is a Croat, called Ivo Markovic, whom Faulques once photographed. The photograph, published internationally, made Markovic recognisable to his enemies, and his wife and daughter were murdered. Thus the issues of responsibility and guilt are rather overtly staged; and there is a lot of inconclusive talk about Faulques's own theories of symmetry and chaos as they apply to art and violence.

There is also a beautiful and tragic woman in Faulques's past. She is called Olvido, and her function in flashback is to laugh behind crystal wineglasses in restaurants and to stand naked on balconies at night. She goes to art galleries with Faulques, where they talk about the paintings; and then follows him to war zones. On the way she is made to say such things as: "I watch you; you're all the time taking mental photos, as focused as if you were practising some strange Bushido discipline, with a camera in place of a samurai sword." That is a rather lovely physical image, but in the end her character seems over-burdened with wisdom.

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.