Homo Mensura

The Flanders Panel
Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Part of the infamous and no-longer-neglected Mini Book Club (featuring moi and Lukre)

Throughout most of the effort of completing the Flanders Panel, I genuinely hated the thing. I despised its inability to give depth to its characters, its inaction and unnecessarily long-winded philosophical musings. Reading it was a horrible experience. Truly, an excruciating feat. There’s nothing happening in this book. There are characters which talk a lot about what’s happening (which is nothing). It’s a jumbled mess of art, chess and dime-store philosophy which only dabbles in mystery.

But (I’m still having difficulty accepting there’s a but!), having completed it, it seems that the objective suckiness of the book has been misplaced by what I have decided it was lacking,

My participation in the recreation of the story has rendered it not-so-horrible. My irritation with the lack of proper emotional response of the characters to the atrocities in the book has, inadvertently, infused them in my mind with exactly that. Even though the flat protagonist Julia has failed to be appalled and heart-broken, by noticing her failure and purely by thinking about how she should have felt, I have somehow redeemed this bad piece of writing. This does not happen often, and I don’t know why it happens with some books, while not with others, but I ended up not giving a one-star review.

I’m a bit distraught by this, but at the same time I love it because it reflects that which I love about books – the words they contain and the stories they tell are subject to endless interpretation of the reader and how much that reader dedicates himself or herself to the process. The whole process is so delectably unstable and open – beautiful.

As I usually do, I rummaged through Goodreads in search of positive reviews which only confirmed that we only think we are reading the same book because it has the same content.

The Flanders Panel still sucks, tho. It’s one of those books that should have been good, because it has all the ingredients. However, as we all now, it’s crucial to know just what to do with those ingredients.

One damp afternoon, Arturo Perez Reverte sat down at his usual table in the quasi-artistic cafe El Museo, somewhere on the way from La Navata to Madrid. Quasi-artistic because its clientele comprised of art enthusiast and connoisseurs. Salvador Dali, who would meet his demise in January next year, never sipped absinth in the dim, smoke-infused interior while pondering the finer nuances of artistic expression.

Arturo was looking through the newspaper he found lying languidly on the table. He looked up briefly when the waiter inquired of his beverage of choice.

“Gin”, he replied, smoothing out his moustache, “with a twist of lemon, if you please.”

He went back to the newspaper, stopping at the art section. Apparently, there was a possibility of Spain housing the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.

August Thyssen, the founder of the Thyssen family’s financial empire and a passionate art collector would not be found in El Museo, Arturo thought, without malice or envy. He liked El Museo. He liked the reproductions which hung on the wall and the quiet discussions about art and an occasional game of chess which included more pensive stares than actual moves on the board.

The lanky waiter set the lemony gin on the table with a polite word or two, prompting Arturo to look up and smile. His smile froze beneath his moustache when his eyes caught a game of chess being played under the reproduction of the Arnolfini Portrait.

Being one of those art enthusiasts, he had a vague idea about the Flemish school and Van Eyck, but his knowledge of the 15th century was far from vague. All those bits and pieces of information, some larger, some smaller, coagulated in his brain to form an idea that will take the form of The Flanders Panel.

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