REVIEW

My Van Gogh, by Chandani Lokuge, uses images of the painter and his work as a motif for self-examination

Vincent van Gogh may be appreciated in charmingly eclectic ways.

A fan might choose to be overwhelmed by the abundance of talent in his eponymous museum in Amsterdam. Don Maclean's song is always available on YouTube. True believers on a van Gogh trail might be beguiled by the weirdly idiosyncratic depiction of rain in Philadelphia's gallery.

Those even more doggedly pursuing the artist could visit the little town where much of his best work was done, comparing billboard-size reproductions of the paintings with the original vistas of stubble in a field or a church on a hillock at Auvers-sur-Oise.

Chandani Lokuge's depressed, itinerant hero adopts a different technique. We meet Shannon when he comes across a version of van Gogh, blown up on a balloon floating above St Kilda Road.

Eventually Shannon, who has wandered around France with a battered edition of van Gogh's letters, encounters more billboards depicting the painter's work, this time in Arles and St Remy in Provence.

Van Gogh appears in the strangest places. Picture: Karleen Minney

Van Gogh appears in the strangest places. Picture: Karleen Minney

Along the way, Lokuge inserts riffs on memory, travel, regret and family. Some of those are enlivened by well-crafted interludes, in the revelation of a woman's beauty within a beachside restaurant in Nice or someone summoning up courage to ring an old lover.

Another character is graciously introduced while signing a "quaint" melange of English and French versions of Moon River.

Shannon himself occasionally ventures into lyricism, evoking sunset in Paris as "like seeing the artist at work -intensifying with rapid swirls the already intense splashes of blue, chrome yellow light and vermilion".

On the other side of the world, he compares an empty Melbourne tram at night to "a glow worm tunnel".

Usually, though, lyricism is not the dominant mood in My Van Gogh. The artist might explode his canvases with sunflowers, hayricks, corn husks, starry nights, almond blossoms and irises.

Lokuge works with a more restricted palette.

As befits his maladies, Shannon takes himself most seriously and is, indeed, accustomed to "hiatuses where his soul went missing".

Nonetheless, he fails to say much which is dramatically insightful about van Gogh. The most engaging comment on a painter in this book concerns Degas.

Socrates was surely right: an unexamined life is not worth living. Shannon, his family and his friends, though, fall foul of a somewhat morbid, miserable brand of self-examination.

Van Gogh did too, but he was sorely provoked.

This story A curious pursuit of an idea of Van Gogh first appeared on The Canberra Times.