Patricia de Martelaere – My Hand is Exhausted
...everything lingers, without it having the least bit of meaning, the brain works that way.
Though Esther never outright states it, she is unhappy that her life has ended up this way, as a portaitist and not a “real” painter along the lines of her hero, Gao Qipei, who liked to paint by hand, without any brush at all. At the same time, Esther is a painter who hates to make a mess with paints, cleaning up after herself to the extent where her ability to properly submit to the necessary techniques of painting (mixing, allowing impurities, embracing free expression and inspiration) has vanished. Patricia de Martelaere's My Hand is Exhausted is the story of the portraits Esther paints of writers and actors to make a living; it is also a metaphor for the failure of the life she is living and the missed opportunities to experience the life she is not.
Most days a new, strange man will enter Esther's house in order to have his portrait painted. These men are sometimes puffed up with arrogance and self-importance, but just as often they are shy, anxious about being painted, even unwilling. Most dwell amongst the third or fourth tier of local celebrity – minor television actors, newly established writers, vaguely important businessmen or politicians – and consequently are unused to the scrutiny Esther brings to her trade. Curiously, de Martelaere has Esther observe these strangers in much the same manner (one assumes) a courtesan might view their clients, which is to say mostly dispassionately, somewhat contemptuously, but concerned, ultimately, with their mannerisms and expressions as short-hand interpretations of humanity.
And then, of course, they tell her their entire life story, from childhood to unhappy marriage, from bed to bed, desire to disappointment, and all in the hope that it might change something, that Esther might make an adjustment here or there, that she might make the chin sharper, the nose shorter. They hope she will paint the portrait of someone as he is when he is loved, that she will draw everything that isn't there, and that it will be there all the same.
These men, then, wish to be portrayed as larger than they are, more important, successful, handsome: if they wanted a likeness they could simply have their photograph taken. Esther remains calm, quiet and withdrawn; she refuses to be coaxed into conversation, and she isn't a pillow upon which they can lay their heads and relax. No, for Esther, this is business, both in the sense that she is paid to perform a duty, and that each new man allows her to better understand the overall concept of masculinity.
But why the concern? Why the contempt for these people who, after all, just want their portrait painted? de Martelaere teases out an explanation for roughly half the story, instead electing to explore the character of Esther. We discover the source of Esther's lonely paralysis is – a man, someone she had once painted, before she hated painting portraits (though she didn't much like it then, either). His name was Peter and he, too, saw these sessions as something of a confessional, but for once she liked to respond. Of course, her heart was broken. Of course, his words said one thing while his actions said another. Of course, she fell for it when she knew she shouldn't.
And she thought: I must remember that, love passes; it might indeed comfort someone, especially if one is the one who loves, which also passes.
But real love? Might as well say: life passes. But real life? Yes, real life also passes. And there is no other life than the life that passes. And it's not even a question of: the longer it lasts the more real it is. Children who die a crib death have really lived, if for an instant; length of time is absolutely not the test.
Strange to say, My Hand is Exhausted loses some of its narrative focus when the reason for Esther's detachment is discovered. Before that she is an appealing enigma, a sensitive, solitary, inwardly interesting though outwardly drab woman who has been damaged at some time in some way. Once the vagueness of “some time in some way” has been discovered she becomes, instead, a discarded woman, a bit too bitter, a little too harsh. Sometimes it is better for the curtain to remain hanging, for secrets to remain hidden.
Esther is an appealing protagonist even though much of her thoughts and mannerisms come across as negative. Rather than simmering with black emotion she instead simply possesses a darkness within herself which taints her words, actions, outlook and desires. de Martelaere provides several strong indications that, were Esther's life different she would be a vibrant, passionate woman with great depth – but that isn't how it turned out. Instead, the positive qualities she might have shared with someone – Peter, if he had deserved it – remain buried within, caught inside herself and no longer even trying to burst free.
My Hand is Exhausted by Patricia de Martelaere is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2012
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2012, include:
------Croatian: Hrgović, Maja - Zlatka
------Spanish (Galician): Fernández Paz, Agustín - This Strange Lucidity
------Polish: Rudnicki, Janusz - The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus
------Irish: Rosenstock, Gabriel - “...everything emptying into white”
------Hungarian: Bán, Zsófia - When There Were Only Animals
------Swiss (Rhaeto-Romanic and German): Camenisch, Arno - Sez Ner
------Portuguese: Zink, Rui - Tourist Destination
------Georgian: Dephy, David - Before the End
------Irish: Hogan, Desmond - Kennedy
------Russian: Davydov, Danila - The Telescope
------Czech: Kratochvil, Jiří - I, Loshaď
------Estonian: Kõomägi, Armin - Logisticians Anonymous
Best European Fiction 2011 short stories under review
Best European Fiction 2010 short stories under review
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review