Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury Publishing; 320 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Georgina Harding’s Painter of Silence is one of those books that completely transports you into another world. The elegant language — Harding’s style is restrained but eloquent — and the Eastern European setting gives the novel a dreamlike quality, one that whisks you into another time and place, and then reveals the pain, heartbreak and horror of war in a rather understated but poignant way.
This deceptively gentle approach makes the story all the more affecting. I found it a quietly devastating read, one that lingers long after you have (reluctantly) finished it.
Set in Romania
It is set Iasi, Romania, during the early 1950s. The war might be over, but its effects are still being felt — and the Communists have ushered in a whole new set of fears. Many people are adjusting to the new world order and some are continuing to look for loved ones that disappeared during the conflict.
When the book opens we meet Augustin, a rather strange and beguiling character wearing a lice-ridden coat and good military boots, who alights from a train, makes his way across a crowded city — trying not to cough “because he knows it will hurt” — but he carries no identity papers. The next morning he is found on the steps of a hospital.
It is clear by the dampness of him that he has spent the night out but it might be anyone’s guess how many previous nights he has spent outdoors. Certainly he does not appear, from the state of him, that he has lived a settled life or even fed regularly for a long time. He is frail as a young bird. […] The first few days they do not even attempt to ask him who he is. For most of the time he is either unconscious or so feverish that they cannot expect to get sense out of him. In his delirium he moans and cries out with strange animal cries, covering taut eyes with hands that seem too big, out of proportion with his emaciated body, scrabbling bone fingers across the sheets.
The hospital staff do not realise that Augustin is profoundly deaf — he was born that way — and cannot communicate, although he has a special talent for painting, drawing and creating paper cut-outs (the “Painter of Silence” of the title). He made a special trip to Iasi to track down a childhood friend, Safta, who is now a nurse at the hospital.
When Safta discovers Augustin is a patient, she is careful not to reveal to her colleagues that she knows him, because “it would be little help to him and none to herself”. We later discover that she is running away from a past, including a rather privileged background, for reasons of her own.
An idyllic childhood
The story charts Augustin’s slow recovery and his subsequent discharge from hospital. We gradually learn about his past, specifically his (almost) idyllic childhood growing up in a manor, owned by Safta’s parents, where his (unmarried) mother was the much-loved cook. We learn how Safta’s mother took Augustin under her wing, almost as if he was one of her own children, and helped to nurture his special talent for art, which flourished with her encouragement.
Despite his disability, he was never treated as an outcast, and the way in which Harding details his sibling-like relationship with Safta is probably the most touching aspect of this novel.
The pain of him watching Safta’s first fledgling love affair from the sidelines is especially moving, and then the knowledge that he can never leave the estate (because of his deafness) when war breaks out, is heartbreaking. But what is even more heartbreaking — and horrifying — is finding out what happens to him when he stays behind after everyone else has fled.
A story told through art
His experiences are revealed slowly via the drawings he makes for Safta. These are beautifully described by Harding — “figures on a road: black rectangles one beside the other like a row of ill-fitting teeth” — and these help bring Augustin’s story to life in a rich, visual way without the need for spoken words.
Harding writes beautifully about people and their relationships, and by using Augustin as a silent observer she is able to show the world through a different set of eyes.
Ultimately, Painter of Silence is a lovely atmospheric story, tinged by tragedy. It has just been longlisted for this year’s Orange Prize and, if there is any justice in the world, more prize listings will surely follow.