Saturday, 20 June 2020

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The White Dress by Nathalie Léger (translated by Natasha Lehrer)   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Léger set out to write this book as an attempt to understand something of the fate of the Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca, who set out to hitch-hike from Milan to Jerusalem wearing a wedding dress and recording her journey and encounters on a video camera, “To prove,” as Pippa Bacca said, “that when you show trust you receive nothing but goodness.” She was raped and murdered, and her body was found in a shallow grave in Turkey. Léger recognises that there is something inauthentic, something lacking, in Bacca’s artistic gesture, but wants to believe that “even when artists are heavy-handed, when their ideas are confused, when their questions fail in some way, their performances nonetheless stubbornly articulate something true.” But the more thought she gives her project, the further she gets from understanding, if there was even anything to understand. Léger bemoans her “heartbreaking inability to understand this girl’s story, [her] inability to grasp what was simultaneously significant and trivial in her gesture, and probably beyond comprehension.” Is it beyond naive to believe that art can ameliorate violence? “This foolishness, this over-the-top, sentimental gesture was without doubt a grand gesture, and a grand gesture might also be a failed gesture. Just because something has failed doesn’t mean that it was a good idea in the first place.” Léger travels to Milan intending to interview Pippa Bacca’s mother but has a crisis of purpose, and kind of breakdown, and instead returns to France to lie on her own mother’s sofa. As she lies there in a melancholy stupor, her mother brings her a dossier of papers and pleads for Léger to give her the ‘justice’ she has always been denied. At first this triggers a flood of unhappy childhood memories in Leger, of her father’s lovelessness and aggression, and of a mother whose “entire life was made up of the ordeal of her abandonment, and we were dragged along in the wake of her sadness.” Léger’s account slips from first to third person where her early trauma is still raw. But, she realises, her mother “was too kind, incapable of shielding herself from the most banal cruelty, incapable of getting over it, incapable of anything but crying, I never helped her, I never stood up for her.” What is it her mother is asking of her? “All you need to be is my seismograph,” her mother says, “you wouldn’t have to do much, just listen and describe, simply describe, capture the wave of a far-off disturbance before it gets lost in the dust, it would be so little to you and so much to me.” Gradually her mother’s trauma emerges from under the trauma of an unhappy childhood. We learn of her father’s infidelity and abandonment of her mother, and the dossier contains the proceedings of the divorce court that allowed the unjust denigration of her mother but disallowed her the opportunity to speak in her own defence. “Vengeance is not a straight line,” says Léger’s mother, “it is a forest. It’s easy to lose the way, to get lost, to forget why one is there at all.” But the mother’s vengeance now comes as words composed by her daughter, words that give the voice back to the mother, the voice denied her in court in 1974, the vengeance is Léger’s narrative, the many permutations of narrative, this book, the fugues of narrative arrayed on commas describing the fatal breakdown of her parents’ marriage. By failing, Léger succeeds. Trauma can only be overcome by failing to overcome it and being aware of that failure. Art only succeeds to the extent that it fails. Leger looks at photographs of Pippa Bacca’s murderer taken a few days after her murder, at his niece’s wedding, and is distressed to see no trace on his face of his violence. He is bland and ordinary. Pippa Bacca’s attacker used her video camera to film the wedding. “He raped her, he killed her … and finally he stole her gaze.” Léger watches the footage as he turns the camera on himself: “He’s laughing. He’s happy. Behind his smug face the sky is empty. All narrative is annihilated.” 

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