I'm a freelance writer, storyteller and poet living and writing in Manchester.
Published September 10th 2012
Searching for meaning and humanity in war
Andrés Faulques is a thirty-year veteran of war photojournalism, who has turned his hand from the shutter to a canvas. He works in a fairly isolated lighthouse, painting a mural three metres high around its circular base, joining his extensive study of art and art history with his many experiences from many wars.
Ivo Markovic is an unrecognised spectre from Faulques' past, who appears one day with an alarming mission: he intends to kill the painter. But first, Markovic needs to share a story, needs to understand Faulques', and the two engage in an exchange that stretches over days, developing a unique kinship - something near an affection - with each other.
During this time, they philosophise about the root and the nature of man's inhumanity toward man, their ideas and thoughts shaded with the experiences born only from an intimate proximity with the brutality of war. Though their paths through and roles in war differ, their conclusions seem to readily align together as they explore and question.
This book is thought-provoking and well worth a read, with a few caveats. First, this is an English translation from the original Spanish, and the language often feels clumsy and forced, and causes an otherwise beautifully poetic prose to stumble and interrupt the reader. It seems as though, at times, direct translations have been made, strictly preserving words rather than deeper meaning.
Second, this novel would have served better as a short story or novella that focused primarily on the interactions between Faulques and Markovic. Much time is spent revisiting scenes from the past, and particularly to Falques' companion and lover, who was killed ten years before by a mine while they photographed a war-torn road. Her role in the book seemed to be twofold: play foil to Faulques by providing the critical insights his detachment doesn't allow, and be beautiful. His recollections of her grew tiresome somewhat quickly, and it became increasingly difficult to resist the urge to skip her pages.
Other memories in the story were more fitting, describing - usually in excruciating detail - scenes of murder and destruction, weary civilians and bloodthirsty soldiers. Most were crucial to exploring the inhumanity central to the book's discussion, but some felt wrenched in, as though the author needed to share them all, even when there wasn't a particularly fitting place. In addition, the cool distance that serves the protagonist throughout the story also serves the reader, and the conscious shift needed to truly absorb and be affected by the images often distracted from the story.
The author of this book was himself a war photojournalist for twenty-one years before turning to writing, and his experiences lend a gruesome reality to the battle vignettes. Sometimes the dialogue feels less like a conversation than an exorcism for Arturo Pérez-Reverte, injecting here an ethereal contemplativeness and inflicting there a tedious rumination.
Despite these issues, which scatter themselves throughout, rather than pile onto each page, I would recommend "The Painter of Battles". It is, overall, beautifully written and carefully constructed, just as the painting that forms the visual centrepiece of the story. Above all, it offers a perspective of the world that many of its readers will not have known. It asks questions that it doesn't entirely answer, because they are not answerable. Most importantly, it challenges the reader to consider them carefully, without declaring specific conclusions, or having the pomposity to declare itself right, and leaves behind it a residue of confusion and wonder.