Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Flanders Panel / Arturo Perez-Reverte -- NY: Bantam Books, 1996

I read a novel about once every six months. There's usually no real rationale behind which novel. Instead, someone recommends one to me, usually putting it physically in my hand, and for reasons I don't quite understand, I end up reading it. It's not that I have anything against novels. I actually quite like reading them, it's just that I'm so addicted to non-fiction that it is nearly impossible to set aside the long list of non-fiction works that I'm so eager to read.

Recently, I was given Arturo Perez-Reverte's novel, The Flanders Panel. It was recommended to me due to the facts that I enjoy playing Chess and that a Chess problem is central to the plot of the novel. Years earlier, the novel had been recommended to me by a Chess-playing friend, who enjoyed the idea of making a Chess problem central to the plot, but found an error in the story's analysis of the problem. My friend is rated an "expert" which is out of my league, so I was unable to confirm his conclusion, about the problem, but I can certainly agree with his appreciation for the novel's conceit.

The main character in the novel is a highly skilled art conservator living in Madrid. Most all the rest of the characters are art dealers or auction house managers. Perez-Reverte portrays them (with the exception of the main character) more or less unsympathetically. They are generally arrogant, selfish, and self-absorbed. At the same time, Perez-Reverte exhibits an appreciation for their high culture arrogance by strewing his prose with a dizzying array of references to art and music (always classical and jazz). While it does help to establish the sensibilities of his characters, it often simply comes off as stilted.

The story itself turns on the main character's work restoring a painting by a fifteenth century Dutch painter, entitled "The Chess Game." Using UV and x-ray photography, she discovers that the painter included the question, "Who killed the Knight?" in his original work, but shortly after, painted over it. To increase the value of the painting, she and her mentor enlist a Chess master to answer the question by solving a reverse Chess problem appearing in the painting.

The plot thickens as her ex-lover and art historian is murder and it becomes clear that someone is playing out the painting's Chess game, killing people as pieces are taken. Perez-Reverte does an admirable job setting out clues (and false clues) to the murder mystery, but in the end the crimes are feebly motivated and need far too much new information to make sense when they are explained at the end of the novel.

There are a few very good portraits of three of the supporting characters, but the main character is rather flat and uninteresting. Were it not for the Chess problem, it would be a fairly unremarkable book. The real mystery is how it became an "international bestseller," at least according to the publisher's copy.

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