Monday, February 21, 2011

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

The story behind a five-hundred year old painting and the secrets found there comprise the canvas of this novel about art, chess and--by the end--anachronism personified.  It's a stand-alone title and the first contemporary one I've read from Pérez-Reverte.  
Julia is an art restoration specialist who has been commissioned to work on a very valuable 16th century masterpiece.  "The Game of Chess," the name of he painting she is working on presents the focal point of the novel.  It depicts three people, two playing chess one observing.  The painting and its artist, and this bears the need to point out, are completely fictional.  However, such is the author's skill that you can easily visualize the work by the opening chapter; it is gorgeous and this picture that isn't real makes such a strong impact it will stay with you all throughout the novel and even after you've finished reading.  Pérez-Reverte has a unique ability to present an idea, or a character in the simplest and shortest terms and establish familiarity with readers as if he'd just presented a dissertation.  The immediacy that he can put readers in a scene is very impressive.   
The painting holds the answers to a murder now five-hundreds years old and the game of chess depicted in the painting may hold the answers to the murders taking place around Julia.  
Julia makes for a 'placeholder' protagonist as I felt she was the weakest of all characters established; she could have been supplanted in her role by anyone else of any age or gender.  All we really know is that she is beautiful, very good at her job, and a chain-smoker.  Her supporting cast of colorful (to say the least) characters includes: an antiquities dealer, César; an art agent with a penchant for powdering her nose "The pharmacy is open" Menchu; and a quiet but brilliant chess theoretician who has never won a game, Muñoz.  Fortunately, they are of more interest than Julia who had potential but never really 'popped' as a character.
The painting contains a hidden message.  It was intentionally obscured by the artist and now can only be seen by X-ray, "Who killed the Knight?"  The meaning of the question proves to have more possibilities than possible answers and as Julia's restoration work progresses, and the painting's value escalates before it's auction, the body count raises among Julia's close personal friends and her life becomes very unstable.  
Naturally, the police investigators in the book are incompetent leaving all the true detective work to Julia's gang; primarily Muñoz with his otherworldly ability to diagnosis the mind of the killer by the 'moves' he makes on the painting's chess board.  Odd as it sounds, this device works.  Many, my self included would deem chess an esoteric topic to center a novel around, but Pérez-Reverte has made an exceptional career in making the esoteric accessible with remarkable ease as if the reader were a long established veteran of the topic.  (Other such topics of the author's included cartography and fencing.)  
The writing is free of tangents and diversions yet it is longer than it seems.  This is a rare book in which you won't mind getting 'stuck in.'  You won't notice page count, or be thinking of what's next on your reading pile.  There are very few books that we read where we don't think ahead but only enjoy every chapter, every page, every word.  Being in the thick of The Flanders Panel is a great feeling and while it's not a 'cozy' anything this is the next good book you'll want to curl up with.  
Veteran readers of murder-mysteries and thrillers may say it's a bit light on the whodunit and thrills and heavy in dealing with the characterization and themes.  They would be right to say so.  The painting--which, again, is fictitious, I can see as clearly as the few Rembrandt's; and Van Gogh's I've like eyes on--is dwelled on to a degree I didn't think possible.  I didn't think a author could get that much material for narrative out of so simple a topic.  
Readers more familiar with Pérez-Reverte's historical fiction (e.g. "me") may be temporarily put off balance.  The florid prose and vibrant descriptions that the author achieves with such convincing ease are gone.  Setting is no longer than primary character, but a painting: an inanimate object possibly holding more room for discussion and interpretation than any location could, take it's place very admirably.  
The ending of all thrillers are a let down to me no matter how the author chooses to resolve things.  I'm too much of a realist to accept the absurd yet I crave it over the mundane.  While the last thirty pages are moot the novel's over all effect is anything but.  If you've ever felt the desire to get stuck in the middle of a good book look no further.      

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