Over the past few years I’ve had several co-workers loan me books. One progressively minded co-worker loaned me her copy of Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason while another colleague of mine, a gentleman who might be described as having a libertarian outlook kindly loaned me America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It and Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism. Another co-worker, a rather voracious reader of fiction, has loaned me several books over the last few years including John le Carre’s novel The Mission Song as well Jim Harrison’s novella collection The Beast God Forgot to Invent. Recently, he loaned me his copy of The Painter of Battles by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Perez-Reverte, a former battlefield correspondent turned novelist uses The Painter of Battles as a means to explore and meditate upon the unsavory aspects of human nature as well as the unintended and unforeseen consequences of cause and effect relationships. Told mostly in flashbacks, his novel, while expertly translated from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden is a slightly uneven but mostly satisfying literary thought experiment.
The novel begins with its protagonist Falques, a retired battlefield photojournalist now living as reclusive painter in an abandoned tower on the Spanish coast. One day he’s visited by a stranger who informs Falques that he was a Croatian solder who Falques took a prize-winning photo of years ago during the Yugoslavian Civil War. According to the stranger, the taking of that particular photograph altered his life horribly and now blames Falques for the misfortune it spawned. The stranger then rather calmly announces he has come to exact revenge and kill Falques.
Oddly, The Painter of Battles is a hard novel to really like or really dislike. The constant use of flashbacks retards the novel’s linear progression and doesn’t make for a lot of action. However, the flashbacks are well-crafted and go a long way to vividly narrate Perez-Reverte’s meta tale, which is an exploration into not only the dark interior of human nature but also how and why things happen – cause and effect relationships that are usually explored by scientists in the contexts of “butterfly effect” and quantum physics. The characters, despite being relatively few, seem intriguing and entertaining and as a result help bring depth and a human face to the more abstract concepts explored in the novel. Overall, while I thought The Painter of Battles never really quite excels, it never really fails either. Not mediocre, not incomplete but also not extraordinary. Maybe somewhere in between.