Shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012, The Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding is set in Romania of the 1950s. It is a novel that reveals the emotional casualties that balance on other end of the physical complexities of war. She gives space to the stories of those that suffered to come alive with quiet dignity on the page. The language is lyrical with the rhythm mirroring the tempo of the action as it unfolds. Harding’s sentences tread softly over the destruction caused during the communist era in Romania. Out of that crumbling of lives and places, she builds an evocative tale portraying that there is beauty even in pain and loss, and even as things change in ways previously unwanted and unimaginable.
It begins with the journey of a man in a train travelling to the city of Lasi. He sits backwards so that he does not face the place that is rising before him, reluctant to lose the view of the landscape that is receding. Lasi is a post war city that Harding describes as smelling ‘sooty and bitter’ with a ‘dark height of sky but no stars.’ The man appears to wander around its streets for some days confused when he is in fact looking for a woman. He sleeps in parks but ‘does not so much sleep, as fall into a suspended state, body and breathing slowing, time fading, like a small creature chilling for hibernation, the chill broken at points through the night through fits of coughing that come with an internal searing heat but make his outer body shiver.’
When the man is finally able to find his way to a hospital, he collapses and is taken in by the nurses who are unable to identify him. He only has a few scraps of paper in his pocket including a discarded ticket and the label from a packet of biscuits. The poetic nature of the prose continues with Harding writing about how ‘certainly it 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 fallen bird.’
Adriana, a ward sister, helps nurse him back to life, projecting her feelings of loss of her own son onto him. He has nightmares but does not speak and appears not to hear until they realise that he is deaf and mute and we read that ‘his horrors appear to abate and give way to vacancy.’ He is recognised by Safta, one of the nurses on the ward, who does not reveal that she knows him afraid of the consequences of bringing attention to a man with no papers to identify him. We learn that his name is Augustin, that he grew up in Poiana, in the Romanian countryside with Safta. She, the daughter of a wealthy family, he, the son of the cook that worked for them. Augustin has a talent for drawing which he uses to create pictures of their life in Poiana and to tell her what happened during the war, after she had left Poiana.
The friendship between Safta and Augustin is revealed not through what is spoken between them but what is said in the silences they sit through. Safta is someone who understood him in childhood and understands him in adulthood even as he does not have the words to express what he was saying. As Augustin’s health improves, Adriana takes him home to live with her where he continues to reveal both his story and Safta’s through his drawings.
Harding’s writing is an example of how each word is given its rightful place, delicate and strong in her writing style she is able to make each word count. Her words are simple, spare but placed alongside each other in such a way that the experience of reading them instantly become intense and poetic. She layers the story one sentence at a time, using the paragraphs to flow between the present and the past as each of the character’s lives show up on the page. It is a story that does not hold back but is effective in showing the restraint that must have been required for those living under communist rule. Harding evokes the sense that the characters are unwillingly pulled into the machine of war and that although they have no control over the unravelling and twisting of their lives once the guns go off, they try to live their daily lives in a way that allows them to assert control over the details once the guns quiet down. No one is safe from the devastation that fighting inflicts, not the soldiers that passed through Poiana while Augustin was still there, not the nurses that work in the hospital, not the people on the streets of Lasi once the fighting is over; they are all discarded and used as pawns of the unknown lords of war in repetitive cycles.
We learn and are told a story at the same time: we absorb the effects of a political and ideological system that did not work while reading one perspective about a country that we may or may not know. Harding makes it possible to understand the futility of war through the direct lens of the human story. In telling us about the lives of Augustin, Safta and those around them living under the heartbreak of war’s consequences, Harding reaches us in a way that cold, hard facts may only leave us numb. The story carries the reader through on a slow simmer that occasionally erupts into a boil; there are feelings of pressure, restraint, pain, happiness, understanding and empathy all pushing up against each other in a way that is necessary for them to ultimately culminate in the overall pleasure of the novel.