is a novel by Michael Frayn
Michael J. Frayn is an English playwright and novelist. He is best known as the author of the farce Noises Off and the dramas Copenhagen and Democracy...
, published in 1999.
The plot centres on the discovery of a long-lost painting from Pieter Bruegel's series The Months
. The story is essentially a farce
In theatre, a farce is a comedy which aims at entertaining the audience by means of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, disguise and mistaken identity, verbal humour of varying degrees of sophistication, which may include word play, and a fast-paced plot whose speed usually increases,...
, but contains a large proportion of scholarship about the painter.
Frayn distinguishes between the iconology and iconography
Iconography is the branch of art history which studies the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images. The word iconography literally means "image writing", and comes from the Greek "image" and "to write". A secondary meaning is the painting of icons in the...
of the paintings and suggests that rather than simply being a series of pastoral images they symbolise a Dutch
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...
populace undergoing great suffering as a result of Spanish
Spain , officially the Kingdom of Spain languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Spain's official name is as follows:;;;;;;), is a country and member state of the European Union located in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula...
The novel was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize.
Martin, the main character, finds himself invited to dinner at the house of a repellent and warring couple, on whom the land and property they own seems entirely wasted. Martin happens on a painting which he takes to be by Brueghel
Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Flemish renaissance painter and printmaker known for his landscapes and peasant scenes . He is sometimes referred to as the "Peasant Bruegel" to distinguish him from other members of the Brueghel dynasty, but he is also the one generally meant when the context does...
. Painstaking research leads him (via a full scale reassessment of the interpretation of the five surviving pictures in Brueghel's The Months
) to identify the picture as the missing sixth picture of Brueghel's famous book of hours
The book of hours was a devotional book popular in the later Middle Ages. It is the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript. Like every manuscript, each manuscript book of hours is unique in one way or another, but most contain a similar collection of texts, prayers and...
Martin has to fake the promise of an affair with the woman of the house to get hold of the picture, and indulge in a series of implausible transactions in other pictures to keep his access to the Brueghel open. Finally, as he manages to get hold of the picture and is about to succeed in taking it to a safe place and secure his fortune, he crashes the old Landrover and the picture goes up in smoke.