For more than 20 years, Arturo Pérez-Reverte made his livelihood in war zones. Working first as a correspondent for the Spanish daily Pueblo, and later as a reporter for Televisión Española, he filed stories from Cyprus, the Falklands, Beirut, El Salvador, Sarajevo – and Eritrea, where for a period of months he was listed as missing and believed killed.
In the 1980s he turned his pen to fiction, and by the mid-'90s, with a burgeoning reputation as the thinking person's thriller writer and a trio of bestsellers under his belt – The Fencing Master, The Flanders Panel and The Club Dumas – he gave up journalism and began writing full time. He solidified his popularity with the Capitán Alatriste series, tales of a swashbuckling mercenary that fed its author's passion for genre and history, specifically that of Spain's "golden century."
With The Painter of Battles, however, Pérez-Reverte returns to a more recent past, namely the two decades he spent chronicling the horrors of modern warfare.
In the novel, Andrés Faulques, a retired combat photographer, serves as Pérez-Reverte's stand-in. Secluded in a medieval watchtower that overlooks the Mediterranean, Faulques busies himself painting a mural on the tower walls that strives to depict the history of war. His solitude is broken by a young Croatian, Ivo Markovic, the subject of one of Faulques' most famous pictures: a photograph of Croat soldiers retreating from the Serbian onslaught at Vukovar. It's an image that graced the covers of newspapers and magazines worldwide, a photo that Faulques "never failed to take pleasure from."
But it is also a picture that cost Markovic dearly. His face, with its "bright, extremely vacant eyes, features distorted by weariness, skin covered with drops of the same sweat that plastered his dirty, tangled hair to his forehead," was recognized by his Serbian neighbours, who took retribution by raping and murdering his wife and child.
Now Markovic has come for his own vengeance. But before he can take his satisfaction, he needs Faulques to grasp something about himself. "I need for us to talk first," he tells the photographer. "I need to know you better, to be sure that you realize certain things. I want you to learn and understand ... After that, I'll be able to kill you."
What follows is a harrowing meditation not only on the nature of war, but also the nature of humankind.
Markovic's visits to the watchtower stir memories for Faulques, memories of, among other things, the execution of Druse militiamen in Lebanon, the shooting of a looter on the street in Mogadishu, and of wounded Chadian rebels being bound and left on the banks of the Chari river as food for the crocodiles. There are also memories of a former lover, Olvido Ferrara. Faulques may have to answer for as much for her death on the Borovo Naselje road near Vukovar as he does the death of Markovic's family.
For both men, it is the mural that becomes their channel. For Faulques, it has "little to do with his artistic ability and much to do with his memory." His style is stolen from others, from Uccello and Brueghal, Bosch and Goya, because the "old masters, more than anyone, knew how to make the invisible visible." And it is the invisible – the impulse behind the action, the incitement behind the brutality – that Faulques is trying to capture with his brush strokes.
For Markovic, the mural is his key to understanding Faulques, and in doing so, perhaps finding the logic to his own suffering.
The many fans of Pérez-Reverte will find The Painter of Battles a departure. The suspense of the novel is muted in favour of a philosophical approach because the mystery at the heart of this book is more inscrutable: What lies at the root of the cruelties we inflict upon one another?
The answers to this question are not likely to bring much solace. According to Faulques: "The world has never known as much about itself and about nature as it does now, but it doesn't do any good. We've had tidal waves forever, you know.
"What's different is that in the past we didn't try to build four- and five-star hotels along the beach. Man creates euphemisms and smoke screens to deny natural laws. And also to negate his own abominable state. And every time he wakes up it costs him two hundred dead in a plane crash, two hundred thousand in a tsunami, or a million in a civil war."
Markovic's understanding of the question, like himself, is far simpler. The nature of humankind, the nature of the brutality it exacts upon itself, is much like the mural: "Circular, like a trap ... a trap for crazed moles."
In a recent interview with Miranda France of The Telegraph, Pérez-Reverte suggested: "Everything that happens in the book happened for real." He goes on to say, though, that he is not "the tormented type ... I'm not going to go and work for some NGO, it's not in my character. So this book is my solution, my analgesic. It's my way of transforming a nightmare into a ghost."
That he has chosen this stage of his career to find his analgesic is opportune for any number of reasons, but perhaps none more so than the fact that The Painter of Battles will be a bestseller because of the name on the cover – and that in turn means many will read what is surely one of the most important ghost stories to be written in recent memory.
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