"A clever photographer, someone had once said, could photograph anything well. But Faulques knew that whoever said that had never been in a war zone. It was impossible to photograph the danger, or the guilt. The sound of a bullet as it bursts a skull. The laugh of a man who has just won seven cigarettes by betting on whether the fetus of the woman he just disemboweled with his bayonet is male or female…. No one brushed the dust off a cadaver." Page 198
My previous reading of Pérez-Reverte hadn't prepared me for The Painter of Battles. This is easily the most introspective and intimate work by the author I've come across. There is none of the colorful florid language of his historical fiction nor any of the guile and plot cunning that he displays in his contemporary thrillers. The Painter of Battles explores, life and death, the meaning of both, art, and a very close examination of morals under extreme duress.
Andrés Faulques was a war photojournalist. After a long and successful career he has retired and committed himself to painting a mural and never again photographing what is essentially humanity as it's worst. Ivo Markovic is the subject, or perhaps 'victim' of one of Faulques best known pictures. His face becomes recognizable all over the world, and his life is absolutely ruined because of it. After much time has passed since Faulques takes the photo, Markovic tracks Faulques down and the two talk of many things.
Markovic blames Faulques for many of his actions, and sometimes his inability to act. Faulques embraces the impending doom of fatalism and preordained law while Markovic will not be shaken from his position that everything is guided by choice. Their battle of words and minds plays out by way of stories of Markovic from his time at war and in remembrances of Olivdo Ferrera, Faulques lost lover. Both men learn a lot from each other in a short time and though there relationship seems odd once each learn of the others intentions somehow things work. It is not the intense verbal sparring and witty repartee of modern minds. In fact, very few are ideas presented are definitively refuted. The concepts brought up and how they are dealt with are slow in developing and demand a good bit of thought.
The author was a war corespondent and while I'm sure he was drawing heavily from his own experiences I was also reminded of the late Kevin Carter and his photo documentation of South African execution by necklacing. Markovic would say by positioning himself for the perfect shot, for the sake of art, instead of acting out in a manner that might prevent whatever atrocity he was about to photograph that Faulques was a good as perpetrating the crime. Faulques would say while he was on the job in a war zone, he was as good as not there. Merely an impartial eye to take pictures for what happened for the world to see; it was not his job to be involved in what was going on around him.
The narration is cold and distant and completely at odds with the peculiar terms of friendship that govern interaction with Faulques and Markovic. It works brilliantly. Ideas are dwelt on for long periods of time. Paragraphs span pages. As such this short, two-hundred page book you thought you'd finish in a weekend turns out to be wonderfully dense with no fluff to skim over and much time need to fully absorb what is given.
Pérez-Reverte has a unique presentation in this novel where much of what you would swear is spoken dialogue, isn't. Not merely the past recollections of Olvido's life but even exchanges between Faulques and Markovic that are happening in 'real time' he writes as prose and not dialogue further enhancing the narrative distance of the story and it's characters. Such distance is necessary considering the deaths described and the graphic situations that many are made to live through in The Painter of Battles.
If I had to say there was a weakness, and I admit to reaching pretty far in pointing this out, it is in the description of Faulques' photographs. 'A picture is worth a thousand words,' and when those words had to be committed to paper in a novel for the many various photographs Faulques took it certainly slows things down in a novel where the pacing is already deliberately controlled. This spelling of pictures out is necessary as it adds realism, gravitas, and ultimately fuel to Markovic's fire concerning Faulques' life.
It is almost against my own volition that I felt satisfied by the ending: I didn't once roll my eyes. I miss the florid beautiful prose of Pérez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste series and the fast pace whodunnit-ness of his thrillers, however, I'll welcome this slow, methodical, melancholy from him anytime he chooses to write in this style. I can say with some feeling of certainly that The Painter of Battles may never be his most popular book, but I'll also make the case that it may be his most powerful.