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
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
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,"
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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