Thursday, December 6, 2007

Death in Spain, Murder and Race Relations in Boston and Philly- Part 3

The Flanders Panel (TFP) by Arturo Perez-Reverte was written by one of my favorite authors. I have read about 80% of his novels that have been translated into English. The writing is always outstanding. Unlike with many authors, these novels span genres, styles and subject matter, and have settings that are modern or historical, or both.

Chess plays a big role in TFP. Earlier this autumn I read and discussed Katherine Neville's cult classic, The Eight, in which the game of chess is also central to the story. TFP isn't a stuffy book by any means, however. We experience a world of Madrid's beauty, love and betrayal in distant the past and present, modern dance clubs and vices, art galleries, collectors and dealers, threatening businessmen, fast-living bums and studious academics. Oh, and plenty of murders that don't seem to make sense.

In TFP, first we meet Julia, a beautiful art restorer who is working on The Game of Chess, a painting from by the Flemish master Van Huys that needs some work before it can be auctioned. Julia has just received a set of X-ray photographs of the painting, and they reveal a surprising and startling secret. Underneath layers of paint, yet dating to the time of the original painting, is a Latin inscription visible only via the X-ray results:

Quis Necavit Equitem
The translation she immediately carries out yields "Who killed the knight?" It turns out that other slightly different translations are also possible, and perhaps valid.

Although "The Game of Chess" had been known for 500 years, and even hung in the Prado during the early part of the 20th century, the discovery of a hidden inscription has the chance to increase the painting's value greatly at auction, so the wolves start circling immediately. An auction is planned shortly in order to raise money for the once-patrician, and currently dysfunctional, family that owns the piece of art and history.

I like the idea of a place, Spain is this case, where a stunningly beautiful woman devotes herself to restoring and researching art and who has the background to read Latin with aplomb and write brilliant summaries and analyses of the provenance and authenticity of classical paintings. In such a place, I could perhaps live happily, maybe with a job as museum guard. Even though this seems like one idiot's version of paradise, the idiot being me, Julia is in for an extended patch of stormy weather. However, she may turn out to be one of the lucky inhabitants of this intriguing place where new and old worlds collide.

One of the pleasures of this book is the chess puzzles, the first of which is the puzzle left by the painter on the the canvas, one that does not require X-rays to be revealed. The painting shows a chess game between two men, a nobleman and a soldier, being played while a woman sits in the background reading a book. The whole scene is reflected in a mirror, and the floor tiles of the room represent the pattern of a chessboard. The actual chessboard used for the game is placed between the two male subjects, who are rendered precisely, as are all of the details of the room. The artist painted in an intricate style, and even the room's reflection in the mirror can be seen. The chess pieces and their placement on the board are clear, and the game has progressed quite far, though not very conventionally.

The first part of the puzzle is to work the painting's game in reverse and determine which piece took the white knight. Why? Because the painter seems to have constructed the entire painting to be a set of clues to a centuries-old murder. Julia solves this puzzle and its sad secrets with help from friends- an old family friend and a new recruit from a local chess club. The chess puzzles in the book are enhanced by pictures of chess boards, so you can try to work out the next (or previous) moves on your own.

However, while further researching the painting and its refractory inscription, odd events begin to occur around Julia, and several of her friends are murdered. It seems that she and her friends have to solve a new chess puzzle based on the game in the painting. The new puzzle is being set for them by some sort of deranged chess master, and it seems to encompass the lives and deaths of the painting's subjects and of Julia et al. The killer starts playing the painting's game forwards, and the taking of pieces corresponds to more murders. Anticipating the next move becomes a matter of life and death.

Will Julia survive? Is she the White Queen? Which of her friends are represented by the other pieces on the board? Which themes from Greek tragedy will play a prominent role? Perhaps the day be will be saved by Julia and an unlikely hero, an introverted chess master who never wins a game, but settles for showing his opponent that he could win if wanted to. At least this one time, settling for a moral victory could prove fatal. With all the confusion, possible betrayals, accelerating pace, and substantial odds against Julia's coterie, perhaps the game will will be lost. Read The Flanders Panel to find out.

Note added afterwards: I forgot to mention that I especially enjoyed reading that Julia listens to the music of Michael Edges! Mr. Hedges was never edgier.

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  1. Thought you might enjoy perusing my list of classic novels, perhaps especially the Spanish ones.

  2. Thanks so much! I've just read two of the Spanish novels- Don Quixote and Los Quatro Jinete del Apocalypso. There are so many more to explore from the great lists you sent me.

    Best wishes, Jim

  3. I'm honoured to be on your blog roll!

    My comment, today, however, isn't anything to do with translation, but rather to grump about a certain conceit of male authors of which I was reminded when I got as far as "we meet Julia, a beautiful art restorer;" namely that any competent female main character has to be beautiful. It's as though "beautiful" were a code word for female.

    It set me to imagining if a hypothetical novel were about me; "...Mago, a dumpy, middle-aged translator is drawn into a web of intrigue when she ..." Hmmm, I must admit it doesn't have quite the same appeal.

  4. Mago: What can I say? I am so happy to hear from you. I wish it were under better circumstances...

    It was my intention to poke some fun at the aspect of the book that you mention by labeling the setting an "idiot's paradise". This remark was a little obscure, though: the meaning was very clear in my own mind, but the text itself was ineffectual (as my wife confirmed).

    I offer an apology (on behalf of puercos de todo el mundo) and an homage:

    Through these mean words a woman must wade, a woman like no other woman, a woman who wrestles with syntax and setting and tone and mood and slang and conquers them all, a woman who speaks two languages or more with such an intimacy that one suspects her mother had two tongues. Without such such a woman, entire cultures would be dead to each other, entire ouvre would be unknown, Christopher would still be unborn, blood and sand would just be words. We may not meet her, we may not know her, we may not see her, but our lives would not be what they have become without her.

    Gracias ... que me ha dado tanto, and when we read that word, beautiful, let us read it in the context of the real world, where anything it connotes is valueless unless the beauty comes from within.

    It is a thrill to hear from you. Lo veremos, bien? Jim (a gangly, middle-aged scientist with a love of words, music and science)

  5. Hey Jim, liked your article, and coincidental to it I have been involved in a collective short story at StoryTime Facebook Group which involves a chess set as one of the prime plot mechanisms. Check it out you might be surprised at how we use it. I unfortunately only have a surface knowledge of the game and it's intricacy, and in the case of this story I wish I knew more. It is however on my very long long things to do before I die list :)
    If you are interested in reading, writing or reviewing new fiction short stories take a look at my author/reader site StoryTime
    Would love to hear you opinions.

  6. Ivor, I'll definitely seek out your short story and StoryTime. Thanks for stopping by. Jim

  7. The novel sounds like fun.Will try to get it sometime in the near future.Thanks for the suggestion!

    If you are interested in Steven King stuff, try Neil Gaiman's "American Gods".I am presently reading it and it's kinda fun,though creepy:)

  8. Rampantheart: thanks for the feedback and suggestion. I checked out your blog and liked it a lot (Tecnorati favorite). Best wishes, Jim