Tag Archive: Depression


(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“Obbachlosigkeith” by Kata Petricevic

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.

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“I think most human beings go through some sort of depression in their life. And if they don’t, I think that’s weird” – Kirsten Dunst

Yu Dafu (郁达夫) was born in Fuyang (a country-level city under jurisdiction of Hangzhou, which in turn is the provincial capital of Zhejiang, an eastern coastal province in China) in 1896. He died in 1945, probably executed by the Japanese during the final moments of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Yu Dafu lived his yearly childhood years in poverty. However, he was able to study due to receiving several scholarships from the government of the time. Mr. Yu studied at several Universities, for instance the Hangchow University, which he only studied at for a short time since he was expelled for participating in a student strike. He then moved to Japan, where he met several Chinese intellectuals. Together they founded the “Creation Society”, which promoted modern literature. Around this time he also started publishing his earliest works in Japan; in 1921 he published the short story “Sinking” (“Chenlun”, 沉淪), his most famous work.

Yu Dafu

Yu Dafu

“Sinking” was mandatory reading for a university class I took last term. When discussing it, the class was fairly divided; many accused the story for depicting an egotistical person who does nothing. One woman in my class however stated: “This man seemed fairly isolated and hasn’t received any affection, any love from anyone. I think this character could have used some therapy”. Her thoughts reflect exactly the take this review will have of the protagonist in “Sinking” and what the story, arguable, describes: A man with severe emotional difficulties due to an unbalanced society.

The protagonist in “Sinking” is never named. He remains just simply an anonymous “He”. However his back story has many similarities to that of Yu Dafu, such as his father dying at the age of three and living in poverty as a child. It has been stated that Yu’s short stories and poems often reflect his emotions and are influenced by his experiences in life. However, this is a little questionable as a major theme in “Sinking”, found as well as his other works, is the feeling of being alienated from women, while the author in actuality was married three times with three different women. On the other hand similarity to Mr. Yu can be found in the stories protagonist is pursuing a study course in Japan and this is the environment which we explore with him. “Sinking” begins with the protagonist lost in a field of alienation triggered by the deep well of “lonesome” which engulfs his person. So begins a story tightly focused on the main characters feelings and moods which unmoored by the feelings of disconnection cause the mental state of the protagonist to uncontrollably (and drastically) undulate over the short span of the narratives unfolding.

One of the very first covers for "Sinking" (Unfortunately sexist)

One of the very first covers for “Sinking” (Unfortunately sexist)

Depression has only recently become a topic which our society can openly confront and discuss. And even if a new openness has been conceded to the subject within Western cultures, it is still one which finds an “uncomfortableness” in the normal conversations of the public and one which finds some stigma lurking in the background. In the midst of this silence and awkward speech, however are to be found some wonderful and insightful works of fiction that depict depression. The most famous example within this “genre” for the Western Reader is Sylvia Plath’s magnus opus, “The Bell Jar” and interestingly, Yu Dafu’s young, lonesome “He” shares similar traits with Esther, the protagonist of “The Bell Jar”.

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“Sinking” is, frankly, another great literary depiction of depression and the whirlpool of desperate emotions it entails.

Both Esther and “He” find it impossible to enjoy literature. In the “The Bell Jar” Esther describes with great alarm to her psychiatrist and her mother that she “no longer reads books”. The protagonist of “Sinking” is described as picking up books, reading “out of sequence”, deceitfully deciding to himself that it would be a pity to just gulp down a book, and abandoning the text . Yu describes the fragmented thoughts engendered by this depression: “Everytime he closed a book, he made up similar excuses for himself. The real reason was that he had already grown a little tired of it”. Both start irregular sleeping habits, such as Esther describing that she “no longer sleeps”. “He” from “Sinking” starts to over sleep, also developing irregular eating habits: “Without bothering with lunch, he slept until four o´clock”. Other than that, the main character in “Sinking” has also a habit of crying spontaneously as well as has mood swings. “He” is prone to self-pity, a common trait of depression in men.

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Naturally one can’t claim this story purposefully wants to solely illustrate a person with depression due to its simultaneous political agenda, however the text openly states that the character suffers from “melancholia” and arguable depression is the terrible and tumultuous state which Yu Dafu is hoping to explore.

Chinese symbol for "hopelessness"

Chinese symbol for “hopelessness”

Yu Dafu was a known critic of society and was known for highlighting government incompetence. During the 1920s, Chinese intellectuals (especially the ones who participated in the May Fourth Movement) believed that in order to improve Society one had to begin by looking, not at the State, but at the individual. To tone up the “I”, so to speak. “Sinking” is purposefully about a man who is not feeling well due to society. Similar to Esther’s depression in “The Bell Jar” being primarily triggered and horribly engendered by the rampant sexism in the American society, Yu’s protagonists depression is caused and sustained by the unstable economical and political situations in China, the alienation and racism he faces in Japan, and a Society which stoutly refuses to recognize its own problems placing it on the individual instead.

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Critics have often pointed out that “Sinking” is highly nationalistic, which of course resonates differently today then what it did back in 1921. Personally, this inclination in the text bothers me little since it was mostly expressed as a sense of wanting to be just seen as equally good as others (Yu Dafu as we find in “He” is a Stranger in a foreign land)*. In Sinking, the protagonist laments: “Isn’t the scenery in China as beautiful? Aren’t the girls in China as pretty?”. “He” does wallow about in fantasies of revenge and violence, which is assuredly unnerving to the reader, but the statements and questions do strike a sort of truth regarding “He’s” chaotic, alienated mental state and the veiled hostile abandonment a society and State imposes on the “outsider”. The Japanese students who “He” continually encounters in the milieu of his study treat him coldly and venture into the adjacent terrain of alienating indifference and covert intimidation to which “He” naturally reacts to with insecurity and anger. It can be said for all that when engulfed in a shadow of forces beyond control and sense even the sanest of us respond with insecurity, confusion and resentment. Using the Plight of “He” Yu Dafu endeavors, along with this question of the inhumanity of person to person, to lay a ground to motivate China to reform and improve itself. To look at the how the State may encourage and nurture the individual and consider a Society formed at the best intersections of Personnel and Political, the individual and the Nation/State.

Yu Dafu was also fairly shocking for his time with his frank dealing with sexuality. Indeed, “Sinking” makes frequent references and depictions of the protagonist masturbating. This works as a way to demystify self-pleasuring, but also a way to portray the protagonist’s alienation. He is insecure and uncertain of himself and barely can find the courage to approach women (or any person, really). He is friendless and unable to bond with another human being. The masturbation scenes are not for shock value, but an honest way for the author to speak of his protagonists’ feelings of guilt and his hopeless earning for love.

Other works by Mr. Yu

Other works by Mr. Yu

The story also is interesting in how openly the protagonist is, in his own way, a little bit too romantic for his own good. He even considers suicide since, as he puts it: “And what would life be without love?”.

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Not much happens in “Sinking”, Yu just lets the story of a sad man’s life unfold. “Sinking” is a tale about emotions, deep unhappiness and despair. No doubt the story will speak to anyone who has ever felt lonely or hopeless at some point in their life. It is a raw, honest and painfully candid tale with timeless themes.

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*As a person of Finnish descent, I can relate strongly to the insecurity of being in another countries “Shadow”. In fact I have asked similar questions to myself as “He”. Here’s a music video recorded by a Finnish Band about living in Swedens shadow (My apologies for the title, it was written in the fifties). No English, just Swedish and Finnish sorry.

Hello everyone!
Today, as the title of this short post states, is PEN’s “Day of the imprisoned writer”. The idea of this day is to bring awareness of some authors and journalist that have been imprisoned due to the context of their essays, poems or prose. It’s also crucial to point out how much work is still unfinished in the battle against political censorship and for everyone’s right to freedom of speech and press. At PEN’s official site, they highlight some interesting journalist and authors in prison because of their work. Go here to read about them.

Best Wishes, Maaretta

a logo used by PEN

The Atlantic wrote about how we’re less likely to recognize depression in men.

A study was made about what happens when women get denied abortions.