Monday, February 21, 2011

On a Chessboard II: The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

(In which I was both an amateur chess player and an equally amateur detective.)


I am a slow reader. And that explains the small number of books in my book pile. Had it not been for my predilection for multitasking, I could have been leading an enjoyable, albeit sedentary, life dedicated to reading. But not only does the multitude of my tasks get in the way of my grabbing another book from my TBR, it is also the fact that I don’t read all kinds of books.
Before I have regained the momentum to read (or should I say gained the interest in reading novels) I just grab anything from tall book piles in Booksale as long as the title is catchy, the cover design is good and it’s not a fantasy novel. As I move on from one book to another, I have decided that I do not (for the moment, because I’ve learned that we’re not supposed to close all our doors, even to books) want to read paranormal romances, chick lit, family fiction, action, sci-fi, mystery and fantasy. But since there is an exception for every rule, I have read halfway through the Harry Potter series.

That actually left me with limited genres to explore. I have developed a penchant for historical and art fiction, though. The plot is predictable at times, but nonetheless inspiring. After reading Arabella Edge’s The God of Spring, which I loved by the way, I realized that it is hard to create a demarcation line between what I like and don’t like to read genre-wise since mystery, for instance, is more or less ubiquitous in history. So when I stumbled upon a book dealing with chess, art and a mystery of a series of murders, I knew better than to resist.

The Flanders Panel is a novel by the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte written in 1990 and was adapted into a British film in 1994 entitled Uncovered. The novel takes off at the discovery of a hidden inscription in The Game of Chess, a fifteenth-century work by the master Flemish painter Pieter Van Huys. The painting depicts two gentlemen engrossed in a complex game of chess – the Duke of Ostenburg and a French knight. Seated near them is the Duchess, clad in black velvet gown, reading. The inscription, which was written in Latin on the canvas and was painted over, states Quis necavit equitemWho killed the knight?

Julia, the art restorer who uncovers the inscription through an x-ray test done during the preliminary stages of restoration, is determined to solve the five hundred-year-old question, initially for the sake of making the price of the painting skyrocket on its auction day. With the help of her friends, she tracks the history of the painting, including the characters in it and hopes to find the answer to the enigma by relying on the pieces on the chess board. She believes that they could find out who killed the knight by studying the pieces on the board. They even go as far as employing the skill of the best chess player in Madrid. At first it is just about the painting and the auction. But as Julia’s friends get murdered one by one, she, together with he rest of her companions, needs to continue playing the game for their own survival.
The position of the chess pieces as shown in the painting by Van Huys.
To describe the novel as mind-boggling is an understatement. Anyone who has read The Flanders Panel would agree that Pérez-Reverte’s philosophical, artistic, literary and even musical references in this novel were successfully executed that it is easy to take the novel as a historical fiction, thus making it difficult for the fact that the painting doesn’t exist to sink in. His characters, who stretch from the sophisticated, hedonistic and decadent elites from the art world to the intellectual, objective people from the world of chess, provide a striking juxtaposition and towards the end, render a patiently built Venn diagram. As he moves on to textually depict a game within a game within a game, the surprising turns of events pull the readers from the engrossment to the fundamentals and intricacies of chess to the banalities and complexities of life, and back. And just as one thinks that the conclusion is rather becoming pointless, Pérez-Reverte saves one last revelation to turn things around, again.
It was, considering the limited reading experiences from which my description would emanate, is a whole new kind of thing. The book is artistic in its sheer definition, binding chess, visual arts, theatrical arts, literature, music and philosophy with mystery. Through this book, I was able to relive the fun of playing chess and enjoy the thrill of playing Sherlock Holmes. I’ll surely get another one like this some other time.

(For the full text of The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, click here)

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