My Friend the Painter by Lygia Bojunga Nunes

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Nunes, Lygia Bojunga.  Translated by Giovanni Pontiero.  1987.  MY FRIEND THE PAINTER.  New York:  Harcourt Brace & Company.  ISBN: 0-15-200872-1.

Lygia Bojunga Nunes' My Friend the Painter is the story of a young boy named Claudio who befriends his upstairs neighbor, a Painter, and former political prisoner.  Claudio and his neighbor originally meet to play backgammon, but soon the Painter is teaching Claudio about art and life.  One afternoon when going to see his neighbor for their weekly backgammon game, Claudio finds the Painter dead in his apartment.  Claudio's grief over his Friend's death is exacerbated by the rumor that the Painter committed suicide and, therefore, will be going to hell.  Through a dream, Claudio is able to come to terms with his Friend's death and remember his Friend.

Nunes has done a beautiful job of exploring a young boy's feelings of confusion, depression, and grief when his adult friend commits suicide.  One particularly effective element of the book is the use of color to explain emotion.  For example, Claudio says the Painter's death is red because red is a color that is "difficult to understand."  Yellow is a happy color, the color of life, while white is "more painful than the other colors."  Before his death, the Painter tells Claudio that mist is the thing that most looked like the color of death because "it looks as if life wants to die."  There is also the elusive "color of longing" that Claudio has a hard time pinning down, but it has elements of beige, light brown, burnt sienna, pink, and orange. 

In spite of his grief, Claudio is able to remember two things about his Friend.  One is a Sunday afternoon the spent talking about all the various kinds of love.  The Painter tells Claudio that he loves him, but that sometimes he loves him as a son, sometimes as a playmate, but other times he wishes he was Claudio, and tells Claudio that he is more like him than any other friend.  The second is a memory of a trip they take soon after the Painter decides he will teach Claudio to paint.  They stop for a picnic at a wood where there are a myriad of green shades.  It is there, that the Painter tells Claudio how he fell in love with his mistress, Doņa Clarice, and how when he went to prison for his political beliefs she married someone else and had a son.  Later Doņa Clarice tells Claudio how she regrets not sharing the Painter with his other two passions, his politics, and his art.  Claudio has gone through the grieving process when he can think about his Friend, "including the whys."

Of Brazilian children's authors, Lygia Bojunga Nunes is probably the best known outside of Brazil.  While My Friend the Painter has a Latin American feel, there are few specifics that tie it to Brazil.  Being told from Claudio's point of view, it is evident that he is more involved with describing the internal aspects, the grief and confusion he feels over his friend's death, than describing the externals, which would establish a Brazilian setting.  It is the focus on Claudio's feelings that make this complex book one that can be appreciated by anyone who has lost a loved one.  

Works cited:
Barnes & Noble website.  Accessed March 25, 2006.

Biobibliography of Lygia Bojunga Nunes from the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award website.  Accessed March 25, 2006.

By Monica Wood