“Painter of Silence” by Georgina Harding (Bloomsbury, 312 pages, $26.00)
How does a person who is deprived of the ability to hear or speak process and understand the world around him? How does he communicate within that world? Or can he? History provides a few dramatic examples, and British author Georgina Harding’s latest novel takes inspiration from one of them.
American artist James Castle was born deaf and never learned to speak, read, write or use sign language. Drawing was his means of communication throughout his 77 years. Born in 1899, he taught himself to draw, using whatever resources were at hand; often these were primitive materials such as soot and saliva applied with a sharpened stick to scraps of paper.
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When Harding (“The Solitude of Thomas Cave,” “The Spy Game”) learned about James Castle, she found the template for the principal character in her latest book, “Painter of Silence.” Augustin is born deaf in 1920s Romania to an unmarried mother employed as a cook in the manor house at Poiana. The employers’ daughter is born within six months of Augustin, and the two children grow up together. They share a childhood on the same estate, but are miles apart in the ways they experience that world.
The privileged Safta is educated at home and interacts with the wider world in a way her childhood friend cannot: “Augustin lived without words. His way in the world was set.” His mother could usually understand and respond to his basic needs, but “sometimes Safta was the only one who could work out what was troubling him. The truth was that, growing up beside him in the days even before she herself learned to speak, little Safta had come to know him with a quick intuition as if he was the silent side of her self.”
Augustin rebels against any schooling offered to him. He never learns to read, write or use linguistic means to communicate with those around him. He does, however, begin to draw, using everyday materials. His artistic efforts become his voice, his outlet and the way he processes his silent world.
That outside world is, in his younger years, one of relative calm and security in Romania between two world wars. The outbreak of the Second World War abruptly changes everything. Augustin, now grown, does not assign specific meaning to the turbulent and violent events occurring around him; he is merely aware that they happen.
Members of Safta’s family begin to migrate to England to avoid the conflict in Romania. As the family breaks up, Safta abandons Poiana but remains in Romania and becomes a nurse. Consequences of the war come to Poiana, as foraging refugees populate the roads, and stray men appear looking for food. A band of Russian soldiers occupies the empty family house. Existence for Augustin and other former servants who have remained on the estate becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous.
Harding starts her narrative after the conclusion of World War II, when Romania is under the control of the USSR. She fills in the characters’ history by means of flashback sequences. During the Soviet occupation, the communist regime has expatriated land and property, disrupting the lives of all Romanian social and economic classes.
Not only has the war brought destruction and privation, but now the country has been looted by the Soviet Union. Daily life is bound by inconceivable strictures, surveillance and suspicion. Citizens have been forced to vacate their homes or reduce their own living spaces and share them with strangers.
Into this chaotic new normalcy we meet Safta, who is working as a nurse in the city of Iasi. One day is far from normal, and she sees a new patient who was found collapsed on the steps of the hospital where she works. She recognizes him as her childhood friend Augustin. He is, however, greatly changed in appearance, “frail as a fallen bird,” feverish, unconscious. “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.”
Where has he been? How has he come to be in such a wretched physical condition? He will not communicate with anyone at the hospital. “His eyes are closed, either because he is asleep or because he has chosen to cut out the world. How complete the darkness must be when a deaf man closes his eyes.” Safta, who remembers his drawing talents, brings him paper and pencil to try to encourage him to communicate. Questions are answered, as flashbacks reveal past events in the adult lives of Augustin and Safta.
Harding has a deep love and concern for Romania that developed after she traveled through the country in 1988, a time when little information was disseminated about the harsh and repressive conditions that continued after the war years.
She discovered a beautiful country with hospitable people who were surviving the worst of the Ceausescu regime. Following this experience, she wrote about Romania in her nonfiction book, “In Another Europe.”
With “Painter of Silence,” she gives us a glimpse of the scenic beauty of Romania as well as the horrific price that its citizens paid during and after the wars. Throughout the story, we are warmed by the unusual friendship of a privileged young woman and a determined young man who is obsessed with bringing order to his world through a silent but expressive voice, art.