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THE FLANDERS PANEL
Reviewed by ANDRE BEAUMONT
In Arturo Perez-Reverte murder mystery, The Flanders Panel, one of the European publishing sensations of 1990, the following dialogue takes place between characters in a section not revelatory of the plot:
Julia pointed to the record player.
"Do you play Bach constantly, or is it just a coincidence? I heard that record the last time I was here."
"The Musical Offering?" Belmonte seemed pleased. "I often listen to it. It's so complex and ingenious that every now and then I still find something unexpected in it." He paused as if recalling something. "Were you aware that there are certain musical themes that seem to sum up a whole life? They're like mirrors you can peer into and see yourself reflected. In this composition, for example, a theme emerges expressed in different voices and different keys; indeed, sometimes at different speeds, with inverted tonal intervals, or even back to front." He leaned on the arm of his wheelchair. "Listen. Can you hear it? It begins with a single voice that sings the theme, and then a second voice comes in, starting four tones higher or four tones lower, and that becomes a secondary theme. Each of the voices enters at its own particular time, just like different moments in a life. And when all the voices have come into play, the rules come to an end."
...."Playing backwards. It's odd. Did you know know that Bach was very keen on musical inversions? In some of his canons he inverts the theme, elaborating a melody that jumps down a pitch each time the original theme jumps up. The effect can seem strange, but when you get used to it, you find it quite natural. [Which is why Bach can seem predictable when he is not being so.] There's even a canon in the Musical Offering that's played the opposite way round from the way it's written." He looked at Julia. "I think I told you before that Johann Sebastian was an inveterate joker. His work is full of tricks. It's as if every now and then a note, a modulation or a silence is saying to you: 'I've hidden a message in here: find it.'"
"As in the painting," said Munoz.
"Yes. With the difference that music doesn't consist of images, the positioning of chess pieces or, in this case, the vibrations in the air, but of the emotions those vibrations produce in the brain of each individual."
The Flanders Panel was very much a period piece, as the reference to a record player might suggest. No Walkman here. At first only published in Spanish, it took the literary world by storm. It is very culturally sophisticated for its genre, delving into the worlds of chess, art dealing, Flemish art, music and European history and sketches a Madrid still with touches of an authoritarian recent history.
When I read the first reviews I thought that I must get this book as I know a bit about chess, Flanders and literature. The English translation did not come till 1994 and in the end I got the paperback in 1996. When this website was being created in the last months of 1999 I really wanted to review it here but decided against because its particular moment seemed to have passed. Added to which a murder mystery tends to restrict what you can say.
So now there is a mini-review here as it is still a book very much worth reading. Whatever the cultural reference, you may end up testing your knowledge of the subject against the author's and the author almost always comes out knowing more but you cannot help but wonder whether he is just an excellent researcher or is truly quite sophisticated in the field. Those are mysteries for the reader to solve quite outside the mysteries of the plot.
So Julia, the female protagonist, puts on a jazz record and the artist is said to be playing a trumpet but that artist is known to some as a saxophonist. Has the novelist made an error? I am not qualified to say but you can read the book and determine for yourself.
Again, there seems to be an error in the recording of one of the moves in chess but I should prefer someone else saying so, too.
It is a wonderfully, tightly plotted novel and reading it a second time you notice the devices used to keep it tight. Were one a detective fiction novelist it would be quite instructive.
The apparent facts are not all facts; the history that weaves threads through it is mainly fantasy.
Dorothy L Sayers, Michael Innes and others could, at times, produce culturally rich murder thrillers that were also period pieces. This novel is near enough best in class.
Now I must go back to The Musical Offering, which unlike the book I now only just recall, and see if I agree. The book's challenges continue.