Arturo Perez-Reverte, former war journalist turned fiction writer, has had his novels translated into thirty-four languages and remains far more popular outside of the U.S. than many other writers of literary fiction. However, his thrillers have been turned into popular movies (The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp, was an adaptation of his novel The Club Dumas) and the rights to his popular Captain Alatriste series have been optioned for films set to start Viggo Mortensen.
With The Painter of Battles, Perez-Reverte has written a stand-alone novel that is a tribute to classical art history as well as an in-depth study of morality and the nature of being. The novel reads at times like a human chess game with the pieces being played by the narrator and self-proclaimed ‘painter of battles,’ Andres Faulques< and the infamous subject of one of his award-winning photos, the Croatian rebel Ivo Markovic.
Can one photo actually destroy someone’s life? Is there a moral obligation on the part of the photographer to not capture certain moments, lest they create a tainted vision that alters reality? These are some of the philosophical debates between Faulques and Markovic as Markovic arrives at Faulques’ ancient tower overlooking the Spanish coast and calmly states that he has come to kill him. Faulques, having retired from photojournalism after 30 years, is now exploring painting battle scenes - and using the inside of his tower to serve as the palette for a large mural that serves as a therapeutic work he needs to complete, at any cost.
Faulques refers to a nameless French poet who suggested that photography was the refuge of failed painters. Thus begins Faulques’ debate with Markovic over the purpose of art, photography, and the impact it has on real life. While Markovic blames Faulques for destroying his life - and that of his deceased wife and son - with one snapshot, Faulques himself fights internal demons of guilt over his former lover, Olvido, and how she was killed while on photo assignment with him. The novel constantly shifts back and forth from the present situation to moments between Faulques and Olvido. It is from Olvido that Faulques found his personal center. Olvido was a free spirit who believed that art was the only story in which justice triumphed and found, through photography, that this may not have been so.
Faulques suggests that the photographer, as observer, finds more and more apparent chaos in nature and that we live in interaction with the confusion surrounding us. With his mural of battles, Faulques is able to find “order in chaos” and continues to calmly justify his actions to Markovic, not caring whether his argument will sway the Croatian from following through with his murder threat. The camera was Faulques passport to what was real, and he is finding it difficult to exist beyond that - although he found it impossible to photograph the indolent yawn of the Universe.
The Painter of Battles is not for the casual reader and will come across as challenging as the works of some of the ancient philosophers who focused on intentions, results, moral obligations and personal ethics. Those daring enough to step into these pages will find a very real work that transcends the characters and the art they speak about while depicting the struggle to come to terms with real-life tragedy.