(Trigger/Content warning: Suicide and depression).
Even if it is perhaps a banal and cliché statement, it still feels right to say that Lygia Bojunga’s ”My friend the painter” is one of the bravest books I have ever read. It takes one of the most taboo and stigmatizing subjects in our society – suicide – and manages to not only capture the grief, loss and confusion that one feels when a loved one has killed themselves, but also depicts the act of suicide in a complex manner, with a voice of honesty, compassion and melancholia. Despite being a middle grade level novel, I would highly recommended this book for all ages. No matter the age, the reader will assuredly get much from this novel.
The story is about 10-year old Sergio, who, in the first chapter, tells the reader about his neighbor and friend, whom he only refers to as the painter. He talks about how the painter educated him in art, and how they in bygone times would play chess together. The chapter ends with Sergio telling the reader that he must now use the past tense, since he won´t be doing anything with his friend anymore. His friend has just died by his own hand.
The book is entirely from Sergio’s point of view, and therefore the reader is mercifully spared the details of the death and discovery of the body. Instead the book explores Sergio’s resolute search for answers, most prominently to the desperately haunting question: ”why did my friend choose to die?”. The adults around him try their best to shield him at all cost; the painters girlfriend lies and claims that it was an accident, Sergio’s parents blurt out that the reason for the tragedy is that the painter was sick in the head. All the adults of the novel are in a circuit to avoid and ignore Sergio’s confrontations and questions. Sergio feels at a loss, since he feels like the adults don´t take him seriously and never answer any of his questions. To add insult to injury, when Sergio tries to talk about his grief to his child friends, they are too caught up in their own worlds to sympathize. The situation of the grieving child is messy, to say the least.
In these scenes, Bojunga captures the heartbreak, confusion and hopelessness that comes with the loss of a friend, while showcasing how the adults around Sergio seem too scared or judgmental to even talk about the life that has passed. Especially, when it comes to Sergio as child, the adults are reluctant to explain or discuss anything with him, despite the fact that Sergio was close to the painter, and is seeking a means to understand the death and his own grieving. The perspective of an overlooked child is a common theme in Bojunga´s authorship, and here it´s used to illustrate not only the condescending view of children, but also the stigma of suicide. The tragedy that has taken place is so taboo that the adults try to shield the boy from everything regarding it, even if it only makes the grieving process that more difficult.
How the novel deals with suicide itself is brilliant as well. Numerous aspects of the painters life is dealt with before his death- his past with being politically persecuted brought about by a critique of the former dictatorship in Brazil, his girlfriend’s withdrawal of support during this oppressive time, his continuous struggles with depression (it is implied that this may be clinical depression, but is gone unnoticed by others), and his difficulty making it as an artist. In real life, why people attempt suicide ranges from a plethora of divergent reasons, from struggles with mental health through loneliness to economic problems. It can also be a case of many of these causes overlapping, and becoming a state unbearable to the bearer of these emotional burdens. Often times, when the suicide attempt becomes fatal, the ones left behind never really find out why the person they knew chose this deadly direction. This is the case with Sergio; he wonders if it was the painters despair in his art, or his conflict with his girlfriend, or some other unseen despair, that was the trigger that drove him to kill himself. The adults around speculate (behind Sergio’s back) that it was his mental health issues or could be seen in the light of his past as a political prisoner that lead to the sad and untimely death. As the many buildings toward the horrific event of the death itself, the novel never lets us resolve this penultimate question with any easy or obvious answers. The reality of surrounding the question of suicide is, at the least, so multilayer-ed that we will never fully understand.
The grief that Sergio feels also captures a painful reality; that of being left with trying to cope after a loved one has killed themselves. The novel doesn´t sugarcoat this experience at all; Sergio’s inner thoughts and process when trying to make sense of everything is as devastating to read about as one can imagine.
”My Friend the painter” by Lygia Bojunga is a sad, honest depiction of a complex, important issue. With this book, Bojunga gives a realistic and mature depiction of a tough subject, that speaks with a strong voice whist avoiding the capture of judgment and simplification. Strongly recommended.