Sunday, March 30, 2008

The witness of evil

This book is extraordinary: The Painter of Battles, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

(It's been more than 2 months now since I read the book, and almost as long since I gave any thought to commenting on it here. The bones of what appears below was written weeks ago — most of it really; I don't even know how to flesh it out, now.)

(This book was released in early January. I'm a big fan of Pérez-Reverte, and was lucky enough to have received a review copy. I was surprised not to have heard anything about it, and reserved the task of digging up other reviews till after I'd read it and formulated an opinion. It turns out that it had received some press, during the week of Christmas — no wonder I missed it (I was too busy eating and drinking).

I've been putting off writing about it because I felt I needed a large block of time — sitting, thinking, writing — in order to do this book justice. The more time that elapses, however, the harder it is. And it's been my experience that those books that have the hardest-hitting impact on me are the hardest to articulate my thoughts about.)

The truth is: I'm not sure it altogether works as a novel, in terms of plot and plot resolution.

(See the "late" reviews in recent weeks in the Montreal Gazette (whose book coverage, surprisingly, has vastly improved over the last year or so) and the Philadelphia Inquirer; I single these out as providing accurate summaries, with impressions similar to mine.)

Basically: a world-renowned war photographer (Faulques) gives up his craft and takes on a very personal mural painting project.

The final result of it all had been the collection entitled Morituri: his last published work. The shortest route between two points: from man to horror. A world in which the only logical smile was that of the skulls painted by old masters on canvas and board. And when the twenty-three photographs were ready, he realized that he, too, was ready. So he put down his cameras forever, called on everything he had learned about painting in his youth, and looked for the appropriate site.


One day, one of the subjects (Markovic) of one of his award-winning photographs shows up, announcing that he's there to kill him, Faulques with that photo having ruined his life.

It's a little too... melodramatic(?) in its events but dispassionate(?) in their execution to be fully believable. For all it matters, the encounter with his would-be killer is an imaginary one. Faulques confronts one of his old photographs, and the discourse that ensues with its subject occurs strictly within his own head, being the function and generation of his creative process.

(Which may as well be how it is that Perez-Reverte came to write the damn thing. He used to work as a war journalist.)

This novel is an remarkable meditation on art, photography, the relationship between artist and subject; the nature of war; love, compassion, human nature itself. A truth always just beyond our grasp. "The geometry of chaos in the serene face of a dying girl."

The atrocities recounted are terrible. Whether they are composites of actual events or their details have been adjusted to serve the narrative purpose — doesn't matter. They are unquestionably in essence real.

Fiction has the power to invoke what newscasts manage to distance from us.

There are no new questions and certainly no answers, but they are freshly expressed.

(I'd noted many passages. To cite or synthesize any of them now seems so trite.)

We were talking about horror and losing the clean focus of the camera. And you know what I think? That you were a good photographer because to take a photograph you have to frame, and to frame is to select and exclude. Save some things and eliminate others . . . Not everyone can do that: set himself up as a judge of all that's happening around him. You understand what I'm talking about? No one who is truly in love can make that kind of judgment.


When I was in grade 7, a classmate called me "aloof." I had to look it up, but I could not disagree with her. For some reason, this seemed highly relevant when I was first setting out these thoughts. As a state of being. An attempt to understand, objectively, by detaching, that to which one has an overwhelmingly emotional response to. A survival mechanism of sorts. Stepping back is the only chance to catch a glimpse of the cosmic plan.

When we divorced ourselves from nature, we humans lost the ability to find consolation in the face of the horror awaiting us out there. The more we observe, the less meaning it all has and the more forsaken we feel. Think how — thanks to Gödel, who certainly rained on that parade — we can't find refuge any longer in the one place we thought was secure: mathematics. But look. If there's no consolation as a result of observation, we can find it in the act of observation itself. I'm talking about the analytical, scientific, even aesthetic act of that observation. Gödel aside, it's like a mathematical procedure: it has such certainty, clarity, and inevitability that it offers intellectual relief to those who know how to utilize it. I would say it's analgesic.


It's clear to me that Pérez-Reverte loves — and knows — fine art. Why waste words trying to do what pictures have already done? Below are just a very few of the many paintings referenced.

"Triumph of Death," Bruegel the Elder:


"Duel With Cudgels," Goya:


"Battle of San Romano," Paolo Uccello:


"Thebaid," Gherardo Starnina:


Seeing a painting like that makes it clear that photography isn't good for anything. Only painting can do what that painting does. Every good painting has always aspired to be a landscape of another landscape not yet painted, but when the truth of a society coincided with that of the artist, there was no duplicity. True magnificence came when they separated, and the painter had to choose between submission and deception, and call upon his talent to make one look like the other. That's why the Thebiad has what all masterpieces have: allegories of certainties that become a certainty only after a lot of time has gone by.


What words are left after such terrible beauty?

Interview.

Excerpt.
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