In a world of shocking after shocking event, the publication of Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo caused a buzz at the publishing prom (National Book Critics Award) and generated glowing after glowing review. Righty so. There was no nudity or inappropriate couplings, as I recall. instead, Ms. Boo did the hardest thing for a writer to do: she noticed the right things. She picked up the details that brought this rutted, muddy tin-town under the lift-off and final approach of a Mumbai commercial airport alive.
She bored down on the poorest, dirtiest, disease-riddled untouchables and she blew their lives up big. She documented the way the boys dangled high on a fence, scrounging for trash. You felt the dirt under your feet as you counted along the eight buttons and coins and rocks along with at the little girl who managed to hoard them in 6 years. And when your family is picked up by the police, deep in your heart you know what everyone knows. The poor don’t always come back.
Courbet did with paint what Boo did with words. He painted the harsh-looking inhabitants from the poor side of town, burying one of their dead. The painting is huge and it’s sheer size screamed this is worth paying attention to, elites. This painting ,Courbet’s Burial at Ornans – rocked the Paris Salon in 1850. How dare he use these peasants as, well, peasants? Where were the models with polished bottoms and rose garlands that populated romantic works? How dare he paint these people? Who would want to look at THEM?
Katherine Boo and Courbet. It feels so right and so wrong at the same time. Katherine Boo should have a man of daring-do, not a high strung painter. She needs a guy that can really work his way through an international airport. Pierce Brosnan, maybe. But Courbet and Boo are just so right together, artistically.
Writer and painter took their monumental talents and turned them on the least powerful people in the world and created great art.
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