Friday, January 6, 2017
Short Fiction Month: Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh - Ian McDonald
During his period in Arles, Vincent van Gogh is working at a frantic pace. He paints what he sees around him, ignoring a lack of money, a lack of sleep and a lack of materials. He has to paint to keep his fear of pain and madness at bay. One day, a traveller from the future arrives. He introduces himself as The King of Pain and wants Vincent to paint his portrait. It is a work Van Gogh will never finish.
McDonald covers the final couple of years of Van Gogh's life, starting with the period in Arles. People familiar with his life and work will recognize a lot of details in the story. The vibrant colours in his paintings, the sunflowers, the wheat fields, the starry night, the yellow house, the bedroom, the crows, and of course the sun. The biographical details match well too. McDonald weaves the meetings with The King of Pain in with Van Gogh's bouts of madness. The period in the hospital in Arles after he cut off part of his ear features prominently in it as well. I suspect anyone who knows a bit more about Van Gogh will see more of the details and possibly a link between the writing and his style of painting.
Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh is quite different from the novels that McDonald would write after the turn of the century. People who like McDonald's early work, will probably connect more easily with it. If you are interested in how his style developed over the years, this story is definitely one you will want to read.
Title: Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh
Author: Ian McDonald
Originally published: The collection Empire Dreams, 1988
Read in: The Best of Ian McDonald, 2016
Story length: Novelette, wordcount unknown
Awards: Nebula nominated
Available online: Not that I'm aware of.