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Painting the Darker Side of Chess
on 15 July 2002
The Flanders Panel opens, aptly enough, with a puzzle: when art restorer Julia carries out a routine X-ray inspection of her latest project, Pieter Van Huys' The Game of Chess, she is astonished to discover hidden under the uppermost layers of paint the inscription quis necavit equitem ('Who killed the knight?) As we soon learn, the 'knight' in question is not just the piece in the hand of one of the players in the painting, Ferdinand Altenhoffen, Duke of Ostenberg, but his opponent in the game, his friend and trusted courtier, Roger de Arras, who was assassinated two years before the painting was created. Thus begins an intellectual endeavour by Julia and her associates to resolve a fifteenth century murder using the clues provided in the painting, with the realisation that a resolution could skyrocket the asking price of the picture.
However, as historical research begins to shed new light on the lives of the characters in the painting - especially the third, Beatrice of Burgundy, the Duke's consort - the untimely death of one of the investigators adds a sinister atmosphere to the intellectual enquiries, and lends new importance to the chess game being played within the painting. Julia and her lifelong companion César, a dandified homosexual antique dealer, react by recruiting the detached and reticent Muñoz, the unfathomable genius of the local Capablanca Chess Club, to aid them in uncovering the hidden chess puzzles in the painting. As Muñoz begins his retrogade analysis of the game in the picture, in an effort to reveal which piece took the white knight, a malevolent figure begins to play out the game that has remained static for five centuries, and the investigative team begin to realise with horror that each of them is in effect one of the remaining pieces, with each move having a corresponding effect in reality....
The Flanders Panel is a must for anyone with an interest in the clarificatory effect of applied logic: anyone who has read and enjoyed Poe's Dupin tales, or Sherlock Holmes, Umberto Eco, or José Luis Borges will be drawn to Pérez-Reverte's classical style of making problems increasingly complicated until only the loftiest intelligence (here, Muñoz) can draw rational conclusions from them. It is not unfair to say that Pérez-Reverte owes much to Poe, particularly in his presentation of the opposition of the two analytical mindsets: the rather uninspired conviction of Muñoz that all imaginable worlds or possibilities are governed by the same logical truths as the real world, and the more abstract belief of Don Manuel Belmonte (the owner of The Game of Chess) that all categorisations are arbitrary, and no system is without its own inherent, and self-destructive, contradictions. Unlike Poe, however, Pérez-Reverte seems to trust in mathematical reasoning as the most effective means towards truth; whereas the former warned that 'unpredictable' truths were outside the boundaries of an absolutely general applicability. The narrative is saturated with Pérez-Reverte's knowledge of chess, be it quotations from Lasker or Kasparov, or the particular idiosyncracies of Steinitz, Morphy, or Petrosian, and the use of chess diagrams throughout will have you playing a bizarre sort of postal chess, trying to anticipate the events of the next chapter before they happen. The boundaries between chess and fiction have rarely been so expertly drawn together.
Even if you are not a chess aficionado there is much to be enjoyed in this book, since it remains a classical whodunit with all the page-turning qualities and evocation of suspense associated with that genre. The hidden layers of meaning created through means of perspective, and the means of atmosphere directly linked to the world of painting in which the story is set - i.e. the frequent use of shadow, light and reflection in the descriptions of a tenebrous Madrid, as well as the recurrent use of the primary colours - are undeniably effective in rendering the often hinted-at Borgesian idea that every dimension exists within another. That is, the chess players in the painting are reflected in a convex mirror, and are standing on a floor of regular black and white tiles (thus, two other simultaneous games are occurring); the characters in the novels are themselves part of a perverse chess game, and often feel themselves drawn into the Van Huys, and we (the reader) are also simultaneously playing the game ourselves, playing with the lives of the characters as we read about them. It is this type of multidimensional narrative that I found the most ingenious aspect of this book, which is as much a puzzle book as it is a novel, as much a tribute to the hidden depths of chess as it is a murder mystery. Highly recommended.