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Monday, March 09, 2009

The Painter of Battles

With The Painter of Battles, Arturo Perez-Reverte, offers a complete change-of-pace from what he usually provides his readers. Rather than another of the action packed thriller/mystery/war stories for which he is so well known, he has written a rather introspective novel that relies on a several-day-long conversation between two men to engage his readers in a story of slowly building suspense and intrigue. Longtime fans of Mr. Perez-Reverte might be surprised and even a bit put off, by the style and plot of The Painter of Battles, but those who stay with the story will be well-rewarded for their efforts.

Falques, an award-winning war photographer, has retired to an isolated tower in which he is painting a huge mural around one of its circular walls. The mural is intended to be both a presentation of everything he witnessed during his career and his understanding of what it is in the human psyche that allows ordinary men to destroy each other with such obvious relish. Falques, who has isolated himself from the community and surrounded himself with art books, is generally satisfied with the quality and progress of his efforts.

Everything changes, however, when Ivo Markovic appears from nowhere one day to announce very confidently that he is there to kill Falques – eventually. Before that happens, though, Markovic wants Falques to understand some things and there are things he wants to learn from Falques. Falques, of course, is at first startled by the intruder and his death threat but, after Markovic identifies himself, his appearance begins to make a certain kind of sense.

Markovic and Falques first crossed paths in one of the many wars Falques spent his lifetime recording when Markovic, in the midst of retreat with a handful of fellow battle survivors, is captured on film by Falques in a picture striking enough to add to the photographer’s fame. Unfortunately for Markovic, the photograph ends up having consequences neither man could have foreseen.

Falques, despite his aversion to sharing his thoughts with others, finds himself in a philosophical discussion of warfare, those who fight wars or take advantage of them, art history, and human nature that evolves over several days. The conversation is one between equals and both are somewhat surprised at what they learn from the other as the ultimate confrontation draws nearer and nearer.

The Painter of Battles is a literary novel that will have readers questioning their own attitudes toward warriors and warfare. It is so well written, in fact, that readers will likely find it difficult to determine which of the two men, if either, is the good guy and which the bad. Perez-Reverte provides a satisfying ending that allows each of us to decide for ourselves.

Rated at: 4.0

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