Until Susan Sontag disavowed some of her more arch anxieties in "Regarding the Pain of Others," intellectual debate over the depiction of atrocities was mostly a chronicle of aesthetic alarmism. Walter Benjamin’s notion that photography creates "a new reality in the face of which no one can take responsibility for personal decisions" turned out to be fairly silly. John Berger’s idea that overexposure to violent images leads us into unconscionable passivity is demonstrably untrue. (Vide Vietnam.) Terrain that has tripped up such great critical minds is not to be entered incautiously.
Yet Arturo Pérez-Reverte - a Spaniard who writes intellectual thrillers and historical novels about such subjects as fencing and musketeers - proposes to scale these heights. In his latest novel to appear in English (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden), a contemporary war photographer exchanges his Nikon for a paintbrush as he energetically embarks on a pictorial representation of suffering, all "26 centuries of the iconography of war," inspired by everything from Greek vases to Diego Rivera’s murals and every minor Italian master in between. Pérez-Reverte is also drawing on personal experience: before becoming a best-selling novelist, he was a journalist covering conflicts in Lebanon, Bosnia, Libya and elsewhere.
The hero of "The Painter of Battles," Andrés Faulques, lives in a 300-year-old tower on the Spanish coast. A war photographer for 30 years, he’s been everywhere: "Cyprus, Vietnam, Lebanon, Cambodia, Eritrea, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique, Iraq, the Balkans." Why did he give up his career to paint a mural on the walls of his tower? Because he couldn’t find, through the lens, "the definitive image; the both fleeting and eternal moment that would explain all things," "the hidden rule that made order out of the implacable geometry of chaos."
Faulques’s foil is a Croatian soldier, Ivo Markovic, who shows up at the tower bearing a photograph of himself that Faulques took in 1991 just before the battle of Vukovar in the former Yugoslavia. The image was on the cover of many magazines and made Markovic famous. It also ruined his life: by the end of the second chapter, he has let Faulques know he intends to kill him.
Yet Markovic repeatedly puts off the murder. "I can’t just kill you," he explains. "I need for us to talk first; 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." Faulques, popping mysterious tablets and occasionally grabbing his side in pain, seems quite ill. He also seems not entirely worried about the threat, although he checks to make sure his shotgun is still in working order.
Throughout this curiously inert and static book, Markovic returns to the story of what happened when, thanks to the photograph, his face became "the face of defeat." Recognized at an army detention center, he was tortured for months by a group of Serbs, then sent to a prison camp, where he was detained for more than two years. Finally released, he went looking for his wife and son, but the photograph had doomed them too. Serbs raped, mutilated and killed his wife because they recognized this likeness of her husband. They ran a bayonet through his 5-year-old son.
Vignettes of depravity, which the photographer and the soldier discuss with stoic manliness, multiply. While Faulques snapped away, men in Chad, wounded and bound, were left on a riverbank to be devoured by crocodiles. Matter-of-factly, Markovic tells of tormenting and beating a mentally retarded man in front of the man’s parents.
The reader feels remarkably distant from these horrors, perhaps because the perpetrators have such drawn-out pseudo-intellectual discussions about who feels the least, who committed the worst wrongs. And perhaps it’s because these discussions are interspersed with cumbersome descriptions of the mural the photographer is painting and how it relates to other works of Western battlefield art: Bruegel the Elder’s "Triumph of Death," Gerardo Murillo’s "Eruption of Paricutín," Goya’s "Duel With Cudgels," Paolo Uccello’s "Battle of San Romano," Gherardo Starnina’s "Thebaid," Aniello Falcone’s "Scene of Sacking Following a Battle."
Pérez-Reverte seems reluctant to omit any remotely pertinent allusion, and he gets into some trouble with his literary references. In one of the rare instances when the two men’s dialogue isn’t too rambling to quote, it dips into a surprising take on British Romanticism. "An English poet wrote the words ‘terrible symmetry’ referring to a tiger’s stripes," Faulques tells Markovic. "He meant that all symmetry encases cruelty."
Another surprising quotation, a translation from Pascal’s "Pensées," prefaces the novel. Pérez-Reverte and his translator have rendered the French philosopher’s "règle des partis" as "the rules of the game," at best an unorthodox translation that trivializes Pascal’s meaning. (Most English translations would render it as "the rule of probability" or the "doctrine of chance.") As the novel proceeds, Pérez-Reverte makes frequent references to geometry as the underlying rule of the game in war photography - and in life. "From below it will always appear to be God’s shoe, but what kills them," Faulques remarks of his subjects, "is geometry." It’s a misapprehension based on a misinterpretation based on a mistranslation.
Amazingly, the novel’s allusive intertextual play fails to smother all drama - especially when Faulques remembers his lover, Olvido Ferrara, an art history student and former fashion model turned photographer. Accompanying him on his travels to various war zones, she takes photographs of objects (shoes, bridges, landscapes) but not people.
Expressions of emotion would have ruined Faulques’s war photography - and possibly his mural - but he had no such difficulty when it came to Olvido:
"Faulques rejoiced in his heart - a savage and at the same time tranquil elation - that he had not been killed any of the times it might have happened, because were that the case, he wouldn’t be there that night, slipping off Olvido’s panties, and he would never have seen her back up a little and fall onto the bed, onto the upturned spread, the loose, snow-wet hair falling across her face, her eyes never breaking from his, her skirt now up to her waist, her legs opening with a deliberate mixture of submission and wanton challenge, while he, still impeccably dressed, knelt before her and placed his lips, numb from the cold, to the dark convergence of those long, perfect legs."
It may be unclear what this passage (and others) about Olvido, a "well brought up and slightly haughty girl," with her "gentle cruelty," has to do with the moral dilemmas of photographing the brutalities of war. It does, however, demonstrate that, given certain convergences, geometry can indeed be fatal - at least to certain novels.
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