Review

The Painter of Battles

Arturo Perez-Reverte, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

Enter the brooding world of the painter of battles, a former
photographer of horrors who has now retreated to an old lighthouse
to paint away his demons. Andrés Faulques made his fame by
capturing wars in photographs. Now retired, he is at work painting
a giant mural on the inside of his lighthouse home, a collage of
battles ancient and modern, a menagerie of atrocity through the
ages. Not expecting (or desiring) anyone to see the mural, it is a
personal therapy of sorts: to tell all the horrible witnessed
stories in paint he could never manage to photograph, thus hoping
in some way to unburden himself from the immense weight of what he
has seen.

A stranger makes the hike up to the lighthouse and asks Faulques if
he remembers him. He reveals himself to be one of the young
Croatian soldiers from the ’90s Yugoslavian genocide in a
photograph that earned Faulques substantial fame, and incidentally
allowed the man to be identified as a combatant, leading his wife
and child to be raped and murdered by Serbian soldiers. Hence he
has decided to kill Faulques, but not before making him understand
why. Intertwined with Faulques’s memories of his
photographer life with his lover Olvido (who provides insight of
her own), Faulques and Markovic discuss and argue about the ethics
of war photography and the nature of human conflict.

The result is a meditation on cruelty, touching the intentional,
the accidental and the nebulous area in between. When friendly
neighbors one day can viciously tear at each other the next, how
much of their brutality is in the people we know --- or rather, how
much of the people we know is present in their brutality? Perhaps
there is a deeper, unshakable current of forced violence that flows
beneath us, irremovable and omnipresent. Man, in the world of THE
PAINTER OF BATTLES, is both irrevocably responsible for all his
evils and yet may feel completely alien from them.

Where Arturo Pérez-Reverte hits home is in the
interlocutors’ discussion of fault and objectivity through
the photographic lens. On the one hand, Faulques believes that he
“had learned a lot about humankind, but nothing had changed
in him.” But the narrative --- while thankfully avoiding the
ultra-dramatic and annoyingly despairing --- is a bullet ride
straight into the heart of a haunted man, and while he is not
broken by his experiences, he is most certainly affected. When
Markovic asks him how many people died because they knew they were
being photographed and wanted to act heroically, he can only weakly
respond that his camera must have saved some lives as well.
Faulques cannot wash the blood from his hands, not even in his
painting. At best, Pérez-Reverte’s intensely
psychological portrait has a quiet, supple feel between the
reminiscences of Olvido and the debates with Markovic; no theatrics
are needed here.

Unfortunately, THE PAINTER OF BATTLES is plagued by slowness. It
begins slowly, with what feels like a far-too-extended
introduction, when one is waiting for something --- anything --- to
happen, which would be fine, except that there is never really any
dramatic intensity to relieve the pressure. While the novel
requires no real plot, its heavy content is best served by a
tautness and economy of prose; when one person speechifies for two
whole pages with hardly a paragraph break, there is a definite
lacking of economy. And while there are plenty of passages that
would be beautiful were they not so disturbing, they must be sought
out.

Can we remove ourselves from the world around us? Can we be
objective concerning the depravity of human nature? Faulques has
tried to escape with his painting, as do all who watch the
atrocities pictured on the evening news and consider it another
world. And his meticulous details about the techniques used to
capture every photograph he mentions suggest some strange apartness
from evil, even on the front lines. The reader may only be left
with questions, but there is nothing more disquieting than
unresolved questions. Take it from Markovic, who, with all the
authority of having survived through war himself, triumphantly
demands that Faulques and, by extension, all of us atone for our
sins with a question: “Does feeling horror blur the focus of
the camera?”

Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on January 14, 2011

The Painter of Battles
Arturo Perez-Reverte, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

  • Publication Date: January 8, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400065984
  • ISBN-13: 9781400065981