Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A mystery about art

Last spring, I headed out to a reading that was to feature a trio of gentlemen: one, the main attraction (for me, anyway), was a no-show; another I knew for his work as a translator rather than as an author in his own right; the third I'd never heard of. Wouldn't you know, it's the guy I've never heard of — José Carlos Somoza — who ends up blowing me away.

(Is that expression right, "blow me away." It rolled off my fingertips, I'm sure I use it all the time, but I'm hearing it my head right now, and saying it out loud, and it sounds so wrong, wrong, wrong, and stupid. And meaningless, really. What does that mean, "blow me away"? "Blow my mind" is like blowing a fuse after a power surge, a useful metaphor. But "away"?)

So. The Art of Murder. Welcome to the world of hyperdramatic (HD) art. Artists use people not only as models, but as canvasses, primed and conditioned for painting. The human canvas is contracted to hold its pose during gallery hours or as otherwise specified when the work of art is rented or purchased. (This movement in Fine Art influenced the industrial design of Decorations: people are lamps, soapdishes.)

HD artists work not only on the canvas bodies, physically painting and manipulating them, but on their minds, to prepare them to be art. Brushstrokes are psychological — delicate caresses of the ego, jabbing questions and insults, nuanced variations and repetitions of these for shading.

One canvas is mutilated, or murdered — it depends on how you look at it. This discussion between the two main investigators in Security drives home the point:

"She was a painting. There's no need to look any further than that, Lothar. Deflowering was a painting. I'll prove it to you." She pounced on one of Annek's studio photos and thrust it in Bosch's face. "She looks like an adolescent, doesn't she? She has the shape of an adolescent, when she was alive she walked and talked like an adolescent. She was called Annek. But if she had really been an adolescent, she wouldn't have been worth even five hundred dollars. Her death would not have interested the Ministry of the Interior of a foreign country, or mobilised a whole army of police and special forces, or led to high-level discussions in at least two European capitals, or meant that our positions in the Foundation are on the line. If this had been only a girl, who the shit would have been interested in what happened to her? Her mother and four bored policemen in the Wienerwald district. Things like that happen every day in this world of ours. People die horrible deaths all around us, and nobody could care less. But people do care about the death of this girl. And do you know why? Because this, this," she shook the photo in his face, "which apparently shows a young girl, is not a girl at all. It cost more than fifty million dollars." She repeated the words again, emphasising them with a pause between each one. "Fifty. Million. Dollars."

"However much the work cost, she was still a young girl, April."

"That's where you're wrong. It cost that much precisely because it was not a girl. It was a painting, Lothar. A masterpiece. Do you still not get it? We are what other people pay us to be. You used to be a policeman, and that's what you were paid to be; now they pay you to work as an employee for a private company, and that's what you are. This was once a girl. Then someone paid to turn her into a painting. Paintings are paintings, and people can destroy them with portable canvas cutters just as you might destroy documents in you shredding machine, without worrying about it. To put it simply, they are not people. Not for the person who did this to her, and not for us. Do I make myself clear?"

The above exchange occurs more than 100 pages in and really bangs the reader over the head with the Point, but from page 1 this alternate world is unveiled and rather gently examined without having to be explicated. It's not exactly masterful, lyrical writing, but what is masterful is that this alternate reality is wholly believable. This book is generally classified as a mystery, but it's a little bit literary, and a lot speculative. In this way it reminds me of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist (although Whitehead's command of language is far superior) — this genre-blending, this construction of an alternate reality so firmly grounded in our own and so delicately skewed that the reader can't help but buy into the sideways squinting perspective on it. One technique common to both books is the quoting of extracts from "historical" treatises from the school of thought that forms the basis of their worlds.

It's worth noting that Somoza gave up a career in psychiatry to pursue writing. His training is put to obvious use in developing his themes and character profiles.

The narrative cuts between scenes of investigating the crime and following the progress of one particular canvas, but the tension builds rather slowly, and it's more intellectual than visceral — the novel is as much a meditation on art as it is a mystery.

Investigators are racing to establish the identity of the killer before he strikes again. They anticipate trouble at the opening of a major HD exhibit. It's a tribute to Rembrandt, but it comes off more as a Guernica:

"We've always thought humanity was a mammal which could lick its own wounds. But in fact we're as fragile as a huge painting, a beautiful but terrifying mural painting which has creating itself over the centuries. That's what makes us so fragile: slashes on the canvas of humanity are hard to repair. And the Nazis slashed the canvas to ribbons. Our convictions were smashed, and their fragments scattered throughout history. There was nothing we could do with beauty, except to grieve over it. There was no way we could get back to Leonardo, Raphael, Velazquez, or Renoir. Humanity became a mutilated survivor whose eyes are wide open to horror."

So. Some interesting ideas about the nature of 20th and 21st century art. The crime may be a statement about art, or maybe it's art in itself. Art as a kind of self-negation. What makes art last is that it is ephemeral. You know, stuff to think about.

I don't read a lot of mysteries, but I certainly enjoy them from time to time. The resolution of The Art of Murder did not come as a surprise, but I found it fitting and satisfying (which is rare in my reading of mysteries).

José Carlos Somoza has written about a dozen novels, but only 2, so far, have been translated into English. He won the 2002 CWA Gold Dagger for The Athenian Murders (which I'll be looking for). The style and setting of each of his books is vastly different from the others.

José Carlos Somoza: official website.
The Art of Murder: excerpt.

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