It is the early 1950s in Iași, a small city in communist Romania. A man is found on the steps of a hospital frail as a fallen bird. He carried no identification and utters no words and it took awhile before anyone discovers that he is deaf and mute. However, a young nurse called, Safta Valeanu, may know who the man is. Safta brings paper and pencils with which he can draw. Slowly, painstakingly, memories appear on the page: a hillside, a stable, a car, a country house, dogs and mirrored rooms and samovars in what is now a lost world.
Those memories are Safta’s also. For the man at the hospital doorstep is Augustin (also called Tinu), son of the cook, Paraschiva, at the manor at Poiana that was her family home. Born six months apart, they grew up with a connection that bypassed words. But while Augustin’s world remained the same size, Safta’s expanded to embrace languages, society – and love, as Augustin watched one long hot summer, in the form of a fleeting young man in a green Lagonda, Andrei.
The story criss-crossing between the past and the present, seems to be what most writers are doing these days including another two of the shortlists: Half Blood Blues and The Forgotten Waltz. As Augustin make his slow recovery, he conveys his past bit by bit through his drawings and crafting figurines out of papers. Adriana, the kindly ward sister, names him Ioan, for her lost son and took him to lodge at her home for awhile.
Safta and Augustin grew up together, one of privileged upbringing the other a son of the cook. Augustin was treated like a family of a household and tutored together with Safta by a governess. It is especially heartbreaking to learn that the governess decided that because Augustin is deaf he is not going to learn anything, not even the monastery would accept him. It is by grace that Safta’s mother, Marina, nurture Augustin’s talent for art and the only avenue Augustin could express himself. Augustin is also very good with horses and all those he tends to the horses of the Valeanu household.
Marina Valeanu prayed away her shame and her disappointment. She crossed herself and kissed the cool metal. her mind went over other things that the Abbot had said. how God might be found in the performance of simple tasks. How he might be found in silence itself. – page 63
When he was angry or sad, it was often only Safta who could understand what it was that troubled him. It was as if the mute boy was “the silent side of herself”.
Romania in WWII
Romania began the second world war neutral, joined the Axis powers after Stalin annexed Bessarabia, and sent armies to be slaughtered on the eastern front. It had a period of fascist rule and played its part in the Holocaust; this took the form of chaotic atrocities, typical of past pogroms, rather than systematic extermination. (Most horrifying is the story of the train that set off from the city of Iasi in June 1941 crammed with some 5,000 Jews. For a week it was shunted and redirected to and fro and held waiting in the middle of nowhere in the summer heat, until most of those on board were dead of exhaustion and dehydration. The barbarity of the event shocked German troops who observed it.)
Then, in 1944, the king led a coup against the ruling dictatorship. Romania joined the allies but this was not enough to save it. The Russians entered the country and Romania’s first communist leader,Gheorghiu-Dej, followed the high Stalinist model, from heavy industrialisation to mass arrests and labour camps, even to a Gulag-style canal project, to link the Danube to the Black Sea, reminiscent of the Soviet White Sea canal. To go back to those Russian references, it was Turgenev to Solzhenitsyn in little more than a decade.
Rumour has it that the war is about to come, Safta left Poiana before the war while Augustin stayed. Augustin watched without comprehension as armies passed through the place. Then the Communists came, and he found himself their unlikely victim and encounter the horrors of his life.
Though he cannot hear her, Safta finds herself talking to him about the old days and, as she does so, she discovers that “speaking to someone who cannot hear is more than thinking aloud. The words make a trail of their own.” Augustin begins to remember the time after Safta had gone, the long hard years of the war. There are things he must tell her. Little by little he tries to summon the rest of the story for her, with his pencil.
What does it matter who a person is or who they have been? Let them think what they like. We’re all so many people, aren’t we, nowadays? So confusing it is, I don’t know how anyone keeps track. There are people we are inside, then the people we used to be, then there are the people other people think we are. You for example. You’re at least three people that I know of: Augustin from Poiana, Ioan we gave a name to in the hospital, Ioan Adriana’s son come back dumb from the war.’ – Safta, page 154
It is a quiet novel with a very understated writing style. Harding writes in a very simple prose and very descriptive. For the very first moment I felt sorry for Augustin for being mute and the frustrations of not being able to hear nor comprehend all the life changing events and war that are happening to him. A lot of sadness and love of Augustin is left unsaid. Harding doesn’t tell you how Augustin feels but she tells you how he feels by drawing. He tends to his horse, he draws; the army came to the house, he drew; the army left and he left the house, he drew and carved out figurines with papers; he stayed with Adriana for awhile he drew; he is with Safta he drew.
He drew, and drew and drew which is uniquely refreshing but can be weary after awhile.
As I said the story criss-crossing between the past and the present, seems to be what the other two writers on the Orange shortlist are doing: Half Blood Blues and The Forgotten Waltz and this is perhaps the 3rd novels in the shortlists that refers to the WWII as a setting after Half Blood Blues and Foreign Bodies.
Nothing dramatic happens and really held my interest, not until the last 100 pages when secrets of both Augustin and Safta are revealed, layer by layer. It is an important book, one that I admire the author for finding the inspiration and her motivation to write about Romania at war (see article : Georgina Harding : Journey through Romanian history)
Read it in another occasion I may have raved about it, but for now I just want the book to finish.
Hardback. Publisher: Bloomsbury 2012; Length: 312 pages; Setting: Iași and Poiana, Romania. Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading at: 6th May 2012.
Litlove: Much of what happens to him arrives without a meaning, and so the passages where he must undergo the atrocities of war are immensely moving as they add extra poignancy to those incomprehensible cruelties. And yet, the absence of language also insulates Tinu in some way, makes him stronger, more resilient, even in his frailty. This is a subtle book and an immensely patient one; patient in the way the characters treat Tinu, patient in the attention Tinu brings to his life, patient in its philosophy of enduring grief, loss and misery in the awareness that everything passes. And the more I think about it, quite possibly a strong contender for the Orange prize.
Nomad Reader: The verdict: This novel has an insistence to it, as Harding’s beautiful writing takes the reader on a journey through Romania before, during and after the war and into the mind of a man who has only art with which to communicate. The non-linear narrative flows beautifully and allows the reader to understand both these characters and their world more deeply. It would be a worthy Orange Prize winner.
Lizzysiddal : Turbulent, violent events are narrated painstakingly, with patience and an underlying stillness. While this is at odds with the nature and impact of those events, it is as close a reflection as words can get to the silence that defines the painter-protagonist.
About the writer:
Georgina Harding is the author of three novels: The Solitude of Thomas Cave and The Spy Game, a BBC Book at Bedtime and shortlisted for the Encore Award. Her first book was a work of non-fiction, In Another Europe, recording a journey she made across Romania in 1988 during the worst times of the Ceausescu regime. It was followed by Tranquebar: A Season in South India, which documented the lives of the people in a small fishing village in the Coromandel coast. Her most recent novel Painter of Silenceis on the 2012 Orange Prize shortlist. Georgina Harding lives in London and on a farm in the Stour Valley, Essex.
Read about Georgina Harding’s motivation behind writing Painter of Silence: Georgina Harding : journey through Romanian history