The Art Restorer: A Novel, by Julián Sánchez, (Barcelona eBooks, Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.), 345 pages (approx.)
Reading Julián Sánchez’s The Art Restorer is like walking into a house of mirrors. Everywhere you look, you see the same thing—but distorted. The Art Restorer is a novel within a novel within a novel, and although each thread is distinct, they are at the same time a set of narrative isomers: slightly different in style or structure, but serving the same purpose.
The narratives in this story occur along two different temporal paths: during the Nazi occupation of Paris and in present-day San Sebastián, Spain. The World War II narrative centers on the life of the muralist Josep Maria Sert. Sert’s name is not all that familiar today, but during his lifetime he was regarded as the greatest artist living, and he produced mammoth commissioned works for cathedrals, corporate buildings, and private collections. One of these commissions was a group of murals for Rockefeller Center that can still be seen today.
According to Sánchez’s novel, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, Sert, who was popular among Parisian circles and also had solid relationships with some of the occupiers, worked as sort of “fixer.” He provided black market goods or or could arrange the release of a detainee.
The main present day characters are all connected to Sert. There’s Craig Bruckner, the art restorer of the title, who hopes to write the definitive monograph on Sert’s works and who turns up dead—murdered?—early on. Bruckner had been studying Sert murals at the San Telmo Museum, where he befriended the new public relations director, Bety Dale. And finally we have Enrique Alonso, originally from Spain, now living in New York, author of historical thrillers, and ex-husband of Bety—who just happens to be writing a novel that includes Sert and that moves between two settings: Nazi-occupied Paris and present-day Spain.
Got all that? One of the characters is writing a book that mirrors the book in which his book is being written. In addition, chapters of the book he’s writing appear in the book in which he’s doing that writing.
What’s wonderful is that all this works. The characters and narratives are woven together so effectively that the novel feels purposeful from the start. Sánchez intertwines truth and fiction and fictional fiction in a way that leaves the reader wondering where the truth lies. And, as he explains in a forward to The Art Restorer, that’s exactly what he wants to do:
In keeping with the custom of all my novels, part of the events described are based on a true story. I leave it to the reader’s imagination and investigative ability to discover which are real, and which are fictitious.
Because Sánchez, like his character Alonso, is a writer of historical thrillers, the details of Sert’s life point to a mystery that needs solving, a mystery that Alonso puts at the heart of the novel he’s writing as he and Dale try to solve that mystery.
All in all, The Art Restorer is a delight. It demands attention from the reader, but repays that attention many times over. Once you begin reading, you’ll find yourself putting all other activities aside as you wait to see how the stories end. One particularly good piece of news is that this is the second of two books featuring Enrique Alonso and Bety Dale. You can also have the fun of reading the first of this pair of novels: The Antiquarian.
Note: The publisher provided a free copy of this book for the purpose of review; the opinions expressed here are my own.