Friday, 13 April 2007

The Flanders Panel/Pd7-d5+

This is an extraordinary Spanish novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte in which murder, chess and history are interwoven in what is essentially a detective story. The central character, Julia, is a restorer of artworks and has been asked at the start of the novel to restore a painting by a Flemish master which depicts a game of chess. Soon, murders begin to happen against the backdrop of her trying to decipher the mystery of a question the painter had hidden on the canvas: "Who took the knight?" She enlists the help of a chess wizard and the murderer engages them both in real and metaphorical games of chess.

It is a brilliant European novel, in which nods are given to many different elements of European culture, and in which ideas are taken seriously (though I wouldn't call it a novel of ideas as such). There is plenty of theorising on the significance of chess, music, systems analysis and logic. There are also passages of what I assume are a kind of free-indirect-indirect speech, in which the characters from the painting (created in 1470) muse and fear and worry, but which are really meditations by the central character through her imaginings of these knights and duchesses. Through this ingenious method, layers of personality are laid down between her dreams and desires, leading us to the slight ambiguity of the novel's conclusion.

It reminds me how crap I am at chess, though I've always led chess clubs at school, and how there is something odd about that game. Children who, we're told, simply cannot, physically cannot, concentrate or sit still, can play silently for the whole hour of the club without moving; children who display no forward thinking or guile in their work flower as people with numerous tendrils of strategy; children who work with intelligence and who have absorbed knowledge and skills get thrashed week after week; almost all of them devise their own tactics and methods of winning. One thing, maybe more consistent, I have noticed is that children who are quite good at dissembling and lying are sometimes extremely good chess players. I have never been because I can never remember ideas and I cannot see the board or the pieces in my mind, I just have to play moment by moment. I don't see attacks on my pieces and I plan my own attacks with the naivety and clumsiness of an eight year old painting in the style of Constable.

The novel comes up with some, perhaps conflicting ideas about the philosophy and origins of chess, taking it beyond war into psychoanalysis.

There are problems with the end, related to this, which I won't reveal here because it would spoil the entire novel. I would be interested to know the thoughts of any readers of mine who have read it, though.


Liz said...

I've read it, know nothing about chess but found it a good read. From what I rememember the end was disappointing although perhaps could have been anticipated.

A much better book, I think, is Shadows of the Wind by ?? Can't remember

Becs90 said...

I've read that book. I thought it was really impressive. I'm not too good at chess but I know it well enough to marvel at the way he constructed the story using it.
Th end was disappointing but I think he made as much of it as he possibly could.
Some of his other books are better though, and more atmospheric.