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Onyx reviews: The Painter of Battles by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

"There are too many photos—the world is saturated with photos. Maybe one day I will compose a painting based on that idea."

So says Andrés Falques, an award-winning photojournalist who spent three decades traveling the world to record war—the mother of all things, according to a Greek philosopher. Eventually he fulfills his own promise, puts down his camera and attempts to distill his thoughts about man's cruelty to man onto a unique canvas: the curved inner walls of a 300-year-old watchtower perched on a hill overlooking the Spanish coast.

Falques believes that each person ultimately has to "paint his own thing. What he saw. What he sees." His panoramic interpretation of war spans the millennia from the siege of Troy to the modern era. He once believed that photography allowed him to see in fractions of a second things that normal people couldn't see no matter how hard they looked. He now believes that some truths cannot be captured in 1/125th of a second. "Photographs remind painting of what it should never do while a painting reminds photography of what it was capable of suggesting but not achieving."

He occasionally visits the small town at the base of the hill, but the locals leave him alone. The steep, narrow road leading up to the tower discourages visitors. The tour boat guide who passes the tower each morning describes him to her charges as a famous painter, but he has no delusions about his skill as an artist. He can draw. He understands the mechanics of painting and has studied the masters so he can borrow from their works, but his fresco won't be a masterpiece. It will suffer the same fate as the crumbling and cracked walls on which he applies his paint.

Despite his isolated location, Falques receives an uninvited visitor, Ivo Markovic, a former Croatian soldier who was the subject of a photograph called "The Face of Defeat" that Falques took during the Balkan civil war. Falques doesn't immediately recognize the man who has been studying and pursuing him for years. The famous photograph destroyed Markovic's life. He was imprisoned and tortured for months and sent to a prisoner camp after it appeared in newspapers around the world. The Serbs raped his wife and murdered his family.

Markovic wants to speak with the photographer-turned-artist so they can understand each other. Then he plans to kill him.

Falques believed himself a dispassionate, objective observer. He has captured many atrocities on film—he once had the blood of a young boy on his hands for three days, blood the same color as the cadmium red paint he uses to recreate this episode in his mural. He listened to the screams of wounded prisoners being eaten by alligators in Chad. He discussed the random way a sniper chose his victims…while the shooter continued to pick people off in the city below.

Markovic, who committed his share of evil acts during his years as a soldier, doesn't believe anyone is objective. "Man creates reality by observing it." He's living proof of the effect Falques's photographs can have on their subjects. "Photographing people is the same as raping them. Beating them. It tips them out of their normal course, or maybe it puts them back on it." Markovic has read about the theory that a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can cause a hurricane half a world away. "Minimal causes, imperceptible to the naked eye, gave rise to dreadful disasters." He forces Falques to admit that there were probably times when his subjects killed people because he was there and they wanted him to record their acts.

Falques accepts Markovic's threat without argument and without taking any precautions to save his life beyond loading the shotgun he keeps in his living quarters, perhaps because of the implications of the excruciating pain that racks his body, held at bay by the pills he pops every few hours. He needs to finish his mural, so he delays the inevitable by telling stories, like Scheherazade, and by listening to Markovic. Their dialog helps him add shading and color to the painting.

Markovic's perceptions of Falques are influenced by what he sees in the fresco. "Some of those scenes are…so real," he says. "More real than your photos, I suppose. And I guess that is what you are aiming for." Falques's beliefs about art make him think about things in new ways. "All good paintings are filed with riddles and enigmas," Falques says.

Over the course of several days, they discuss philosophical matters steeped with significance while they sip cognac or cans of beer. Readers might come to believe that Markovic is actually a figment of Falques's imagination—a ghost from his past or a manifestation of his conscience, if he possesses such a thing.

Markovic is disappointed, though, because he doesn't perceive remorse in Falques's mural. It is as coldly rational as a scientific conclusion. When Falques remembers things he witnessed, he thinks in terms of symmetry, perspective, available light, apertures and f-stops—not emotions. "Nothing has ever hurt you. Seeing what you saw didn't make you any better or more committed to your fellow man."

The one subject Falques isn't comfortable with is Olvido Ferrara, his lover and companion for three years. Shortly after Falques photographed Markovic, the Croatian witnessed Falques taking a picture of her corpse.

Wise beyond her years and beautiful beyond compare, Olvido (her name means "forgetfulness") was a model who joined Falques as a "tourist of disaster" after meeting him at a Mexican museum. This chance encounter is another random event that changed a person's life—one end of a vector that leads inexorably to her death.

She was the subject of cameras long enough to know their dangers. "It's been a long time since a picture was worth a thousand words," she says. "Our era prefers the image over the object." She used Falques as her passport to the world as a way to shed her self-confessed naiveté. Countering the conventional wisdom that said it was unwise to bring a woman into the war theater, Falques discovers that Olvido has a knack for knowing how to be adopted by dangerous people, giving him access to places and people he might not otherwise have had.

Olvido isn't a brilliant photographer but she has a certain intuition, preferring to take black and white photographs of objects instead of people—"not man, but the traces of man." For a while she helped Falques remember he was alive and part of humanity. Her death made him a lonely observer again. Unlocking the reason why he chose to take her picture after she died in a ditch in a foreign land may help Markovic understand the man he intends to kill.

Heeding Markovic's advice, Falques invites the tour guide to the tower. Intrigued, she arrives painted up and full of anticipation. However, she is taken aback by what she sees. "There's something evil here…Evil beyond the control of reason and presented as man's natural instinct," she says after viewing the mural. Falques and Markovic understand her reaction. "(Photographers) want to peer into Paradise, not at the beginning of creation but at the end, just at the brink of the abyss," Markovic says.

The Painter of Battles feels like the book Pérez-Reverte was destined to write, drawing heavily on his experience as a war journalist. The images he uses to convey the inhumanity of war are almost certainly derived from things he witnessed. Falques's observations might be attributed to the author. "Wars are nothing more than life carried to dramatic extremes. Nothing that peace cannot contain in small doses," he argues.

The psychological chess game between Falques and Markovic would translate well as a two-man play with a single setting, the inside of the tower. In a way, the book is like the mural Falques is creating—an amalgamation of scenes that together produces something different and new, with a through-line that is only seen when the final pages are finished. 

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