Reading guide for My Friend the Painter

by Lygia Bojunga

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Laureate 2004

Written by Ulla Lundqvist

About the author

Lygia Bojunga was born in Pelotas, Brazil, on 26 August 1932 and grew up on a farm. At the age of eight, she moved to Rio de Janeiro, where in 1951 she became an actress and joined a theatre company that travelled around the Brazilian countryside. The widespread illiteracy that she encountered prompted her to help found a school for poor rural children – a project that she remained involved with for five years. She worked for a long time in radio and TV, before launching herself as a children’s author in 1972, under the name of Lygia Bojunga Nunes.

On the continent that has become known for its magical realism and fantasy-filled storytelling, children’s literature is also renowned for a marked erosion of the boundaries between fantasy and reality. Lygia Bojunga is a writer who has developed and perfected this tradition. For her, magic permeates the everyday and the boundaries of the possible are diffuse and easily transcended. In Bojunga’s work, sorrow coexists with comfort, tranquil happiness with breathtaking adventures, and at the heart of it all is the child, often abandoned and alone, always sensitive and possessed of a vivid imagination. Neither death nor betrayal are taboo, yet healing is also at hand.

The child’s point of view is always paramount in Bojunga’s texts. She views the world with the imaginative gaze of a child. Fantasy often functions as a way of dealing with distressing personal experiences. When the main character in Corda Bamba (1979) uses her rope to walk into an extraordinary house with a number of closed doors on the other side of the street, what is really taking place is a coming-to-terms with grief after the sudden death of her parents. In A Casa da Madrinha (1978), we quickly realise that Alexander’s amazing experiences in his search for his godmother’s out-of-the-way house are actually the concrete expression of an abandoned street child’s blissful yearnings for happiness and security. It is a story with many parallels with Astrid Lindgren’s South Wind Meadow (Sunnanäng).

The magical realism and psychological observation are combined with a clear passion for democracy and social justice. Bojunga, who started writing when Brazil was still in the grip of a military dictatorship, is an expressly political author. In an interview she once said that generals don’t read children’s books. The political symbolism comes through most prominently in A Bolsa Amarela (1976), where we encounter fighting cocks with their brains sewn up with thick thread, and peacocks with thought filters that can be removed with corkscrews.

Bojunga sometimes opts to remain in reality, where she also reveals her sharp psychological focus. The storyline is thus not always the most important element in her work. The emphasis lies instead with the narrative itself, its poetic overtones. This is perhaps most obviously apparent in O Meu Amigo Pintor (1987) (My Friend the Painter, 1991) where ten year-old Claudio deals with his grief over his friend the painter’s death with the help of colours. A bell rings yellow, then gradually stops and becomes completely white. Yellow happens to be Bojunga’s favourite colour, associated with a joie de vivre that has been a constant theme ever since her first children’s book Os Colegas (1972) (The Companions, 1989).

Bojunga’s work has been translated into a number of languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Bulgarian, Czech and Hebrew. She has won a number of prestigious awards, including the Jabuti Award (1973), the Hans Christian Andersen Award (1982), and the Rattenfänger Literaturpreis (1986).

About the book

O Meu Amigo Pintor (1978) (My Friend the Painter, 1991) is a book about art, love and death – this troika of themes appears many times and is a key aspect of the recurring dreams, through which ten year-old Claudio comes to terms with his difficult experiences. The reader is told what has happened on only the second page. Claudio, who narrates in the first person, discovers that he is starting to see what the painter means about colours and emotions, but he has to stifle the impulse to jump up and tell his friend: “I couldn’t speak to my friend the painter; he’s dead. He died three days ago.” So what we are about to read is a tale about death – in fact a person who has taken his own life.

In flashbacks and dreams, Claudio recounts a loving friendship between himself and a grown man, an artist, who lives in the same building. This man is never given a name, and is simply referred to as My Friend or The Painter throughout. The painter tells Claudio about colours, their meaning and their magic, everything in life has a colour, emotions as well as objects, and you have to learn what a colour is, what it means.

However, the painter is dead. Suicide, according to the neighbours and the boy’s parents, who want to protect him and try to turn his mind to other things. The painter’s death must have something to do with the mysterious Dona Clarice or the fact that he was once imprisoned for political reasons. But Dona Clarice dismisses his questioning; the painter didn’t kill himself, he died as all of us must one day. But surely she was lying?

The unhappy boy can’t shake off the thought and one day he pins the woman down – Don’t lie to me because I’m a child. In the end she recounts her sad love story. While the painter was in prison – his many letters never reached her – she married someone else, and now the painter wanted her to leave her husband and child, which she couldn’t do. And the painter felt that he was no longer able to paint, not the way he wanted. His pictures were lifeless. Claudio is relieved to find out the truth. Now he can begin the grieving process without the eternal question of “why?”.

The three themes of painting (work), love and politics recur in dreams and thoughts. The longest of the dreams plays out in a theatre, where the painter appears as a ghost – Claudio enters the terrifying scene in an attempt to save his friend. The dream reappears in a new guise, with the three themes coming together as one. If only that had been possible in real life, the dream suggests, the painter would have been happy for all eternity.

Things to think about

Why does the painter have no name?

Is it important that Dona Clarice looks down when faced with Claudio’s first question? In what way?

Why didn’t she tell the truth straight away – and why did she reveal all in the end?

What link might there be between the two statements from the painter, that red is a difficult colour to understand and that politics is so very difficult?

Does the book say anything about the society in which it is set? What?

The story contains a couple of unsympathetic characters. What function do they have?

What role do Claudio’s dreams play? How do they relate to reality? What can Claudio – and everyone else – learn from dreams?

One of the colours mentioned is the colour of longing. The painter has called it “Siena” – a colour also known as ochre (a beige-red like the soil around the Italian city of Siena). Is this a suitable colour for longing? Why/why not?

The story states that emotions have colours. Is that true? Can names and words also have colours?

There are different kinds of friendship – one is the kind between an adult/old person and a child/young person. How does such a friendship differ from one between people of the same age?

Is Claudio an ordinary teenager? If not – what makes him different from most others?

Further reading

Andersson, Karl-Olof: Diktare & pedagog: sagoberätterskans frihetskamp, Pedagogiska magasinet 2009:4 (in Swedish)

Fransson, Birgitta: Generaler läser inte barnböcker, Pedagogiska magasinet 2004:2 (in Swedish)

Fransson, Birgitta: Plantera ett frö för fantasin, Opsis kalopsis 2004:3 (in Swedish)

Holm, Mats: Lygia Bojunga - med förmåga att förhäxa, Svensk bokhandel 2004: 16 (in Swedish)

Isaksson, Britt: Lygia Bojunga har fått 2004 års Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, IBBY bladet 2004:2 (in Swedish)

The following titles by Lygia Bojunga are available in English:

The Companions, 1989 (Os Colegas)
My Friend the Painter, 1991 (O Meo Amigo Pintor)

This Reading Guide was written by Ulla Lundqvist, former member of the jury for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. It was first published in Swedish in January 2012.

Further reading about Lygia Bojunga