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My Friend the Painter
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by Lygia Bojunga Nunes

In a day-by-day first person retrospective and contemporary narrative, Lygia Bojunga Nunes chronicles the relationship between a boy and his Friend, a painter living in the upstairs apartment.  Events unfold against the backdrop of the boy's awareness of colors and the emotions these colors evoke.
 
The painter sparked this interest in colors:
 
            One day my friend told me that I was a boy with the soul of an artist, and he gave me an album with some pictures he had done in watercolors, oil paints, and pastels.  He said that he had arranged the pictures in an album to help me understand better this question of color. . . . My friend told me that the more you look at a color, the more you get out of it. (3-4)
 
One day, tragedy strikes.  The boy, Claudio, comes home from school, goes to his friend's apartment and finds him dead.
 
Reviewer Janice Del Negro[i] judges that the book is "a slight treatment of a boy's reaction when an older friend, a painter, commits suicide."  She further believes that the book's "easy writing style"" can't make up for its "lack of depth . . . skim[ming] over the deeper themes (life, loyalty, death, art, betrayal) without satisfactorily exploring any of them."  I believe that, despite its subtle style, the book does treat the subject of suicide and grief fully.
 
In her seminal studies on death and dying, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler Ross[ii] identified what is now known as "The Five Stage Grief Model."  Although not named in the book, all of these stages are addressed.  Furthermore, the stages are tied to Claudio's perception of color.
 
Denial  / Yellow.  When Claudio first sees his dead friend, he turns away, unable to look.  He finds himself "facing a picture [his friend] had painted: a yellow woman (6)."  His friend told him that he painted the woman yellow "because she had woken up feeling happy (6)."  Yellow represents happiness.
 
Claudio's friend had a windup clock that chimed on the half hour and hour.  Claudio's family can hear these chimes in their apartment.  Claudio likes hearing them, knowing that his Friend is upstairs.  After his friend's death, all Claudio wants to do is stay in his room, "listening to the clock chiming upstairs.  And how it chimed.  To begin with it was bright yellow (7)."  Claudio is happy, listening and imagining that his Friend is still alive upstairs.
 
Anger / White and Red.  Soon, however, the yellow associated with the chimes begins to pale.  "The clock started to wind down and this slowed down the chimes so that yellow became sadder and sadder, became whiter and whiter (7-8)."  When the clock stops chiming, Claudio sees only silent white.  He says, "I never thought that silence could be so white.  And then, yes, I saw that my friend had really died and that . . . white is more painful than any other color (8)."
 
Claudio spends much time examining the red pages in the painter's album, "to see if I can understand (14)."  He associates angry red with the death:  "For me, my Friend's death is also something red, something difficult to understand (17)."
 
Bargaining / "Color-of-longing (27)".  Claudio does not understand that his Friend committed suicide.  A neighbor girl unkindly informs Claudio, "Your Friend the Painter has gone to hell. . . . He killed himself. . . . And people who kill themselves go straight to hell."  Claudio shoves the girl and runs away.
 
His parents try to hide the facts from him.  One day, however, Claudio overhears his parents talking about the painter.  Claudio's father tells him that the painter was sick "up here (24 [tapping forehead])" and that he had, indeed, killed himself.  Claudio protests, bargains.  "But he was my Friend . . . a friend for life! (24)."  Looking at the album, he sees a color.  It wasn't beige or light brown; "it could almost have been that color [his Friend] liked and called burnt sienna.  But it wasn't that either (26-7)."  Claudio decides that it is the "color-of-longing (27)."
 
Depression / Dream and Brown.  In the dream, three figures from one of the Painter's paintings come alive and are, like Claudio, rehearsing a play.  In the first dream, two figures are dressed in blue, one in white.  The figure in white is the Painter, now a ghost.  The Painter confides to Claudio that he "doesn't know how to play the part of a ghost (35)."  Claudio panics and is deeply sad because he cannot help his friend.
 
In school, Claudio is drawing a heart.  His friend tries to help him because, instead of a bright red heart, Claudio's heart is misshapen ("squashed") and "brown (48)."
 
Acceptance / Dream and Green.  Claudio begins to remember the happy times he had with his Friend.  A final dream helps Claudio and cements his pleasant memories.  The three figures reappear.  Now they are dressed in green, reminiscent of a peaceful day that Claudio spent with his family and the painter, on a picnic near the woods.  The figures are representations of the Painter's three divisive passions (painting, girlfriend and politics).  Now, however, the figures' green clothing signifies unity and peace.  Claudio's "Friend can live in peace" and the Painter is "happy -- happy forever! (66)."
 
Other than names, there are no cultural markers in this book.  The tragedy could be played out in many countries.  My Friend the Painter deals with grief in a deep and meaningful way.  Nunes' tale is masterful in its connection of memory and color and emotion.
 
 
[i] Negro, Janice M. del. 1991. Review of My Friend the Painter. School Library Journal 37 (10): 125. 
 
 
Nunes, Lygia Bojunga. 1995. My friend the painter. Trans. Giovanni Pontiero. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace.  Originally published as O meu amigo pintor. 1987. [n.p.], Brazil: Livraria Jose Olympio Editora.   ISBN 0-15-200872-1
 
 
This review was written as part of a graduate course in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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