Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Consolation of Yourcenar

I am nearing the end of the translation of Yudit Kiss's The Summer my Father Died. In this passage the father of the narrator, Anna Holló, is dying in hospital and conversation has become difficult so she offers to read to him. It would be nice to think art had this power. Sometimes, often too late, it has.

In the last days at the hospital I was constantly waiting for my father to speak, to reveal at last the great truths and secrets, and define his inheritance. But our intimate conversations, when they didn’t concern his manuscript, consisted of minor banalities and we were often stuck for words. On day when the gaps in conversation were unusually long I asked him if it was difficult for him to speak.

‘Yes, ever more difficult,’ he said with signs of panic in his eyes.

The havoc in his body was sending unmistakeable messages to his brain but it seemed he was still set on ignoring them. I pulled from my back-pack a thin book, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Oriental Tales, that my friend Justine had brought me the day before I left.

‘Would you like me to read some of it for you?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know what it’s like, my friend lent it to me. But Yourcenar’s a good writer, we can rely on her.

My father nodded, relieved. I took the book and started to read. The story concerned the painter Wang Fo and his students. Wang Fo can paint so well that after a while it is said that with the last stroke of his brush his pictures come alive. Propertied people want him to paint guard dogs, the nobles want fully armed soldiers, priests regard him as a saint, and common people fear him because they fear he can conjure up all kinds of terrible things. One dawn they drag Wang Fo in front of the Emperor who condemns him to death. His crime is that his painted world is more perfect than the real one where the Son of Heaven exercises absolute power. The world is nothing but a mass of scribbles the mad painter has committed to canvas, and our tears are always smudging it, says the Heavenly Dragon. As a last act of grace the emperor allows the old master to complete a half-finished picture that is kept in the palace. While the executioner heats up his iron in the fire, Wang Fo sets to painting the sky-high mountains, the waves of the sea, and the clouds gathering at dawn. As soon as he moves his brush the water breaks into waves and slowly covers the emperor’s palace. Soon a light little barque appears with Wang Fo’s faithful disciple Ling sitting in it. Under the astonished gaze of the courtiers he helps the master into the craft and starts rowing. When the two men disappear behind the cliffs on the horizon and the last plash of oars is heard the water slowly withdraws from the palace. There are only a few damp patches left of the so recent flood.

Art can speak to power by outshining it and outlasting it - and power knows it.

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