Lucy Popescu reviews The White Dress, Nathalie Léger

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Review of The White Dress by Nathalie Léger ahead of Lucy Popescu’s interview with translator Natasha Lehrer for The BookBlast® Podcast Bridging the Divide series. The White Dress is the final part of a trilogy of works that began with Exposition.

Brides on Tour: peace not war

On 8 March 2008, Pippa Bacca, a 33-year-old Italian feminist artist, decided to hitchhike from Milan to Jerusalem wearing a white wedding dress to symbolise “marriage between different peoples and nations.” Her aim was to promote world peace and she intended to document her experiences by video. However, on 31 March, having temporarily separated from her fellow bride on tour, Silvia Moro, Pippa was picked up by Murat Karataş in Gezbe, Turkey. He raped and strangled her and dumped her body in a shallow grave among some bushes. Léger /Léger’s narrator meditates on Bacca’s sorrowful journey and interweaves the story of a mother and daughter’s relationship. Natasha Lehrer’s perceptive English translation was notably published on the twelfth anniversary of Bacca’s death.

Léger begins by interrogating the nature of visual art and its efficacy given so much is side-lined or ridiculed – and the power of certain performances to make the history books. Francis Alÿs’ Green Line of paint through Jerusalem, and Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, where she invited attendees to cut off a piece of her clothing, are cases in point. Both their acts, like Bacca’s journey, encourage empathy.

As Léger observes, Bacca “wanted to travel through countries that had recently experienced war.” She asks herself whether Bacca’s deeply personal act would have resonated so deeply if she had not been brutally murdered? Would she have been greeted with the same empathy if she had lived? Finally, she admits: “It was not her intentions that interested me, nor the grandeur of her project, nor her candour, her grace or her foolishness, it was that she wanted, by making this journey to mend something that was out of all proportion, and that she did not make it.”

At the same time, in a stunning piece of (presumably) auto-fiction, Léger / her narrator reveals her mother’s attempts to seek redress against an unfaithful husband, who abused his weak, indecisive wife and then trounced her in the divorce courts. The mother begs her daughter to “avenge” her and hands her a dossier that catalogues the various ways she was mistreated by her husband.

Léger interweaves the personal and political to terrific effect as she examines the misogyny that surrounded Bacca’s murder and her mother’s abuse. Bacca chose to hitchhike because she believed in the inherent goodness of people. “It’s a way of showing trust towards your fellow human beings. To prove that when you show trust you receive nothing but goodness.” That belief was to be her downfall. Léger’s mother was betrayed by her husband because she tried too hard to please and was weak in the face of his adultery; unable to leave, force her hand or stand up to him. In the divorce courts she was punished, because “he wanted to be the victim rather than the victimizer, he wanted her to apologise for no longer being loved, he wanted her to be at fault for having been betrayed, and of course he challenged what the law could grant her, in exchange for leaving.”

The White Dress is a book, I hesitate to call it a novel, very much about empathy. Léger introduces this theme early on when she writes: “You look at a face, you become the face, you become the act itself… That’s what scientists claim: the brain of the person looking cannot help but internally mimic all the gestures of the person facing them.” Léger doesn’t state it, but something similar is supposed to happen when we read: If the writer is good at their craft, we begin to empathise with the characters. These complex nuances are brilliantly translated by Lehrer.

Léger feels empathy for Bacca, the message she was trying to convey, her innocence (some would say naivety) and her tragic, brutal murder. Initially, Léger displays far less sympathy towards her mother who complains that of their two subjects “mine is more real than yours.” It is only towards the end of the book that Léger reveals the empathy that has been there all along, writing about her mother’s divorce trial in seven furious pages without break. Her mother, satisfied by this proof of her daughter’s sympathy, is content to let things go. She tells her: “you’ve written it for me…you’ve put back the missing words, the forbidden words, you’ve given me back my living voice.

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