I have long been a fan of Pérez-Reverte’s books. His The Fencing Master remains one of my favorites; it brought me to a whole new understanding of the grip that the past may have upon our lives. It also made me rethink what I value and why. This book, however, is neither a mystery nor an adventure story like Pérez-Reverte’s other novels. It is something much more profound.
Set in the present day, it is the story of Andrés Faulques, an award-winning photographer who has retired from the world and from his career covering wars. Faulques has taken up residence in an old tower on the coast of Spain where he is painting the interior, creating a 360-degree mural that depicts battles ancient and modern. And the fallout from those battles: the executions, the rapes, the ethnic cleansing. There is very little of the heroic here. He has too many memories for that.
Calling his painting an attempt to come to terms with the horrors he’s seen would be much too simplistic. Rather, he is trying to find the structure, the equations and architecture, that will explain war and the cruel punishments that men inflict on each other. And on women. Collateral damage.
There is much about painting here, the effects of certain colors to portray a misty dawn or to highlight a knife’s edge. There is much about photography, the shutter speeds and so on that Faulques used for the photographs he remembers as he paints. There is much about war, details of atrocities that counteract the distance and depersonalisation of names of colors and f-stop settings. Pérez-Reverte himself was a war photographer, so he speaks from a position of authority about the role of the photographer versus the painter, the degree of immersion experienced by a war photographer, the responsibility he has or doesn’t have towards his subjects.
The story is set in motion when a stranger arrives at the tower. He turns out to be a soldier whom Faulques once snapped as the man rested, weary and dejected, by the side of a dusty road. The conversation between the two men weaves in and out of Faulques’s memories and his work on the painting. Some reviewers have felt that the philosophical bent of their conversation bogged down the book, but I found the whole thing fascinating. In fact as soon as I finished it, I started it over again, something I rarely do. If I found the ending a little too neatly wrapped up, that is the only flaw in this astonishing book.
The vivid descriptions made me feel as though I had fallen into Faulques’s life: the tourist boat that comes by at the same time every day, swimming in the sea below the tower, 150 strokes out every day, 150 strokes in. And into Faulques’s memories, such as what it is like to sit on a terrace with a fancy dinner before you and hear captured soldiers being dragged off by alligators, a particularly gruesome and sadistic form of execution. Faulques recounts all these and discusses them with his visitor using an unemotional tone that is more deeply moving than the strongest hysteria or hand-wringing. This is the way it is. This is the way we are.
Faulques circles back to a handful of incidents, such as the day he met Olvido Ferrara in a museum. She abandoned her life as a fashion model to go with him and take pictures of wars, of small things: a pair of shoes, a notebook, an empty road. He remembers her learning to break down and reassemble an assault rifle blindfolded, and the way she could analyse a painting and make him see things he had never seen before. He remembers the people in his photographs, the teacher leading a cadre of his young students, the prisoner who refused to beg for his life. Old now, older even than his years, Faulques is taking the measure of his life. Not dismissing his previous occupation, but sure that what he’s doing—painting these battles—is the most important thing he can do.
I know. It sounds awful and ugly. But it isn’t. It’s true, and it’s beautiful.