Arturo Pérez-Reverte

"The Painter of Battles"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew JAN 20, 2008)

"If, as art theoreticians maintained, the photograph reminded painting of what it should never do, Faulques was sure his work in the tower reminded photography of what it was capable of suggesting, but not achieving: a vast, continuous, circular vision of a chaotic chess game, the implacable rule that governed perverse randomness -- the ambiguity of which governed things that were absolutely not fortuitous -- of the world and of life."

"From the beginning he had sought something different: the point from which he could become aware of, or at least intuit, the tangle of straight and curved lines, the chess-like schemes upon which the mechanisms of life and death were formulated, chaos in all its forms, war as structure, as fleshless skeleton...the gigantic cosmic paradox."

For seven months retired war photographer Andres Faulques has lived in spartan conditions in an eighteenth-century watchtower at Cala del Arraez. Every day at one o'clock a tourist boat passes and the guide tells her curious flock about the painter who is "embellishing the entire interior wall with a large mural." Since the climb from the cove to the tower isn't effortless and Faulques has put up signs to discourage uninvited guests, his solitary efforts to transfer his vision onto the rough, cracking, bending surface go uninterrupted. That is, until a stranger shows up one day wanting to know whether he is "the photographer," instead of "the painter." 

This unwelcome interlocutor asks Faulques whether he recognizes him. Faulques doesn't, so the impassive stranger explains that their paths crossed near Vukovar, Croatia years ago. He, Ivo Markovic, was a soldier, and Faulques took his picture without a by-your-leave. That photo became a worldwide icon of the Baltic war. Markovic continues conversationally that he has come to kill Faulques for taking that famous photograph.

So begins a restive, surreal dialogue (and cat-and-mouse game) between the two men, who, on one level engage in a philosophical dual, but on another, seek a reconciliation of sorts. For all his steely resolve to end Faulques' life, the Croat, Markovic, first wants to understand the man he blames for the tragedy that engulfed him after that picture was seen by the wrong people. And Faulques discovers a sounding board, even a student, in Markovic -- someone whom he can educate about how he, Faulques, thinks the world really works. 

His painting is a mass of battles, bloody victims, and an eye-focusing explosive volcano, all connected by perspective lines and obscure connectors. Markovic thinks the mural is cluttered by the lines, the geometry, the hint of chess board squares. Faulques' insistence on equating life to chess does seem too much of an intellectual game -- until one character takes fatal steps that mimic those of a chess piece. Faulques cements that defining move into his world view and his wall of paint. Markovic, studying the jumble of of color here and charcoal outlines waiting to be finished there observes, " 'So you decided that the best way to travel to a painting of war was to spend a long time in war....' " Faulques replies that was one way to sum it up.

Influenced by the instants of horrifying brutality and mortality he captured with his camera during his globetrotting days, the painter of battles longs for a universe ruled by an implicate order within seeming chaos. He instructs Markovic about the theory of the Butterfly Effect (i.e., that the order of things can be changed in colossal magnitudes by something tiny and seemingly insignificant), which they both see amply illustrated in their own lives. A good pupil, the Croat sums up, " 'Nothing is innocent, then, senor Faulques. And no one.' " But Faulques wants more than that. He longs for some kind of geometry, some kind of Theory of Everything that will bind meaning and even purpose to the parade of mutilated, decomposing bodies and still living people whose experiences have turned them into living dead.

Both Markovic and Faulques belong to the living dead, inhabiting their own unique hells. Each man has lost more than he can really bear, yet each is still breathing air, pumping blood, thinking. Faulques tells Markovic some of his dark and disturbing correspondent's recollections, but others he summons only in his own mind... how, for instance, he pushed his lens to the face of a wounded, prone and bound Chadian rebel lying on the banks of the Chari river. The awful fate of that African, and other captives, was to later be dragged into the water and eaten alive by crocodiles.

All those years ago, on that road in Croatia, Markovic twice saw Faulques...with the young female photographer who accompanied him. The ex-soldier instinctively knows she was more than an apprentice and colleague. He senses she is central to Faulques' motivations. But, try as he might, he can't coax Faulques to spill her story to him. The painter reserves most of his thoughts about Olvido Ferrara for himself and the reader: "[She] had loved him, he had no doubt. She had done so in her deliberate, vital, and self-centered manner, with a sediment of intelligent sadness in the pauses. Faulques has always moved with supreme caution around the subtle melancholy latent in the depths of her gaze and her words, like a prudent plunderer trying not to provide a reason to make the latent explicit. Flowers just keep growing, detached and sure of themselves, she had once said. We're the fragile ones." She died years ago, yet she is the avenging muse for Faulques' collage of battles scenes on the watchtower interior. She is his fulcrum, his nexus...his downfall.

The Painter of Battles stands as a richly-textured inquisition into a number of themes: What are the moral responsibilities of professional photographers who often "steal" images without permission, often of people in the throes of sorrow or depravity? Is civilization merely a facade that, should it crumble, would leave human beings with no shreds of decency in the face of the need for survival? Can a painting (or a photograph) ever hope to portray the complexities of existence? Is love destroyed by human desecrations, or is it still love regardless of how we abuse it? Do sense and rules actually underpin the cosmos?

Arturo Perez-Reverte's previous novels (The Flanders PanelThe Seville Communion, The Club Dumas)  were as erudite and intricate as this latest submission, flexing the author's ingenious, somewhat detached imagination. The Painter of Battles invades the present and delivers uncompromising, sometimes desolate views of how thin the line between life allowed and death delivered really is. Through Faulques the author declares, " 'It's here, under our skin,....In our genes. Only the artificial rules, culture, the varnish of successive civilizations keep man within bounds. Social conventions, laws. Fear of punishment.' " Perez-Reverte, himself a former journalist who covered wars, has, one can fairly assume, injected some of his own unforgettable on-the-job sights (or variations thereof) into The Painter of Battles. Those grisly or macabre descriptions are not -- fair warning -- for the faint of heart. Perez-Reverte, it seems, has poured more of himself into this book than any before it. He has succeeded in giving readers a work of sober import. The novel takes time getting traction with its characters and format but then grips one in a vise that won't let go. The conclusion both completely follows from all that has gone before and yet stuns. This "intellectual thriller" is highly recommended. (Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden,)

  • Amazon readers rating: from 26 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Painter of Battles at Random House

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Bibliography: (with links to

El Capitán Alatriste Historical Series (in process of being translated to English):

Other historical novels:

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About the Author:

Arturo Perez-ReverteArturo Pérez-Reverte was born in 1951 in Cartagena, Spain. . A retired war journalist, he covered conflicts in Angola, Bosnia, Croatia, El Salvador, Lebanon, Libya, Nicaragua, Romania, the Persian Gulf, and Sudan, among others. He now writes fiction full-time.

His books have been translated into 34 languages in 50 countries and have sold millions of copies.   In 1998, Club Dumas was nominated for A World Fantasy Award. Watch for the Roman Polanski movie starring Johnny Depp called The Ninth Gate. It is based on The Club Dumas.

Pérez-Reverte lives in Madrid, Spain, where he was recently elected to the Spanish Royal Academy. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014