Friday, 13 January 2017

Book Review: The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte believe that until the break-through of photography painters did little more than depict what they, saw in reality or in imagination. In fact, even naturalistic pictures like portraits are the product of an idea that can include mysteries. Some are obvious and easily revealed knowing the code, i.e. the meaning of symbols, colours, composition, etc. in a given period, while others are hidden or inexplicable because their codes are lost and too subtle or time-bound to be cracked. Occasionally, the restauration of a painting exposes a secret that sheds new light on time, methods and mind of the artist like in the novel The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Nearly five hundred years after its creation the art restorer Julia discovers a hidden inscription in the painting of a chess game that turns it into an encrypted testimonial of a murder... and the reason for more crimes in Julia’s immediate surroundings.

Arturo Pérez-Reverte Gutiérrez was born in Cartagena, Murcia, Spain, in November 1951. After studies of Journalism and Political Sciences, he worked as a journalist from the early 1970s through 1994, mostly as a war correspondent. Already during this time, in 1986, he made his literary debut with the historical novel El húsar (The Hussar) and continued to write fiction prolifically, since 1996 full-time. Among the most notable works of the author are the novels The Fencing Master (El maestro de esgrima: 1988), The Flanders Panel (La tabla de Flandes: 1990), The Dumas Club (El club Dumas o La sombra de Richelieu: 1993), The Seville Communion (La piel del tambor: 1995), The Nautical Chart (La carta esférica: 2000), The Queen of the South (La Reina del Sur: 2002), The Painter of Battles (El pintor de batallas: 2006), The Siege (El Asedio: 2010), and the seven books of the Captain Alatriste series published between 1996 and 2011. His latest published novel is Falcó (2016). Arturo Pérez-Reverte lives in Madrid, Spain, although he passes a great part of his time sailing the Mediterranean Sea off the Spanish coast.

The latest job of the young art restorer Julia from Madrid is to do up The Flanders Panel of a chess game from 1471 for her friend Menchu Roch, a rather vulgar art dealer charged with selling the painting for its elderly owner. Below yellowed varnish and oil paint the x-rays of the picture reveal a mysterious inscription reading “quis necavit equitem”, i.e. “who killed the knight”. On closer inspection Julia is convinced that the words must have been painted over already at the time of creation or shortly after, most likely by the painter himself, and she’s aware that it’ll increase the value of the painting considerably if she finds out what the inscription means and why the painter changed his mind. She asks her ex-lover, the renowned art historian Álvaro Ortega, for help and as hoped he can promptly give her information about the (fictional) painter Pieter van Huys as well as about the picture itself, notably its history and the two male chess players portrayed in front and the black-clad woman in the background. Moreover, Álvaro lets her know that another person whose identity he isn’t allowed to disclose already asked him to do research about the painting. Three days later a dodgy police inspector tells Julia that Álvaro was found dead, maybe murdered in his bathroom. By this time she believes that the key to the secret is the chess game in the painting and with the help of the gifted amateur chess player Muñoz whom her fatherly friend César, a homosexual antiques dealer, introduced to her she is able to solve the mystery surrounding the killed knight. However, Julia and Muñoz soon find themselves forced into continuing the chess game from the painting in real life. And every draw threatens to have deadly consequences…

The title The Flanders Panel makes expect a plot surrounding a picture, and in fact, the novel told from the perspective of an unconcerned, third-person narrator opens with the revelation of a mystery about the people in a fifteenth-century painting. Thus at first, everything hints at a historical murder case waiting to be solved five hundred years later by the protagonist, but the focus of the novel soon shifts to a thrilling chess game and to a series of violent deaths intermingling inseparably the historical and the contemporary dimension. The passages that deal with art and the art business in Madrid show great expertise although they serve only as background and therefore aren’t particularly elaborate. As regards chess, the author goes more into detail in an attempt to acquaint the non-playing reader with the game. Since it’s the chess game that drives the plot, it was essential to include also diagrams to show its changes on the chess board, a technique that reminded me of Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari’s The Master of Go (»»» read my short review on Lagraziana’s Kalliopeion). Nonetheless, it was easy to follow the plot because it isn’t really intricate and also thanks to simple language. Unfortunately, not only the plot, but the characters as well – including the protagonist – lack depth and couldn’t really convince me.

Considering that The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte was such a big success that the novel was adapted for the screen, the read was a bit of a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed every page of it, or else I wouldn’t have bothered to write this review, but I had certainly hoped for something more highbrow. I really liked the outline of the plot and the choice of characters (historical and contemporary) because at least to me they seemed the ingredients for a piece of truly great literature. To my regret, though, the author wasn’t up to meeting my high literary standards and produced just another entertaining murder mystery for the masses who long for a temporary and light escape from their demanding lives. Maybe this is what he wished to write from the start. At any rate, the book is interesting and engaging enough to deserve my recommendation.

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  1. I have heard of this author. I have not yet read him. He seems quite prolific. Interesting how the book did not live up to your expectations but still you enjoyed it.

    1. Yes, Arturo Pérez-Reverte has written quite some novels and many of them best-selling. I think that he is most popular in his native Spain, though.
      Indeed, I was rather disappointed that he kind of "wasted" a great plot on a mainstream murder mystery when he could so easily have done better.


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