Author Georgina Harding takes a unique look at World War II’s effect on a small area of Romania, through the eyes of a deaf mute man, and the effects she achieves are nothing short of spectacular. Well, “spectacular,” may be a poor descriptor – this book is full of subtle touches rendered in gorgeous language, and the accumulating power is spectacular. And the high skill in the prose extends to the intricate plot, as well. No wonder it was short-listed for the 2012 Orange Prize; this book gets my highest recommendation.
Augustin is born to a peasant mother who cooks at a large house in rural Romania. It gradually becomes clear the child cannot hear, but unfortunately not before it is too late to try to teach him. As he reaches pubescence his work ethic and kind heart have carved out a niche for him on the estate. Then the war comes and the household splinters; Augustin, nicknamed Tinu, ends up relocated and finally imprisoned by the new Communist authorities.
As luck would have it, he ends up in a hospital and one of the nurses is from the family he used to serve. She struggles to bring him out of his shell, and is helped by others on the staff. Tinu touches all he meets; people open up to him in these troubled times and reveal their innermost selves. He becomes a receptacle not only of what people tell him, but of the experiences of the entire country. And through it all, Ms. Harding’s prose contains gift after wondrous gift.
A sample from early in the book:
Dusk was falling across the garden, the hills, the view of the village. In the river, darkening scraps of colour grew sodden and began to sink unseen. The boy walked home across the grey fields. All colour was gone now; the plank fence about the yard, the barns, the woodpile reduced to a smudged charcoal blackness.
Another, two thirds through, to show a brilliant image achieved by the author:
The deaths and the processions press and tangle in his memory. No pattern to them, no chronology either. There are tanks, men, horses, lines of men, dressed in the colours of the soil, of mud and dust; and if they were stripped of their clothes they would be pale and bare like pale stalks that should be concealed beneath the ground, covered over again with soil.
This stunning image mixes in Augustin’s mind with the figures he has seen on the walls of the churches: “… pale lines of naked men marching up and down the scenes of judgement.” So the war’s all-encompassing devastation takes on the appropriate magnitude: Judgment Day.
Obviously no further judgment on the Second World War was needed, nor on the repressive impulses of the Eastern European regimes that followed it, but Painter of Silence’s contribution is a unique one. It places a young, defenseless man at the center of the storm, and he suffers through it with his unique handicaps and strengths. He accretes a more universal role in his suffering, and the author accomplishes all her grand ambitions in somber, beautiful, even-keel language that suits the subject perfectly.
This book is exceptionally artful, a complete joy to anyone who appreciates deep purposeful prose and lofty ambition. Take this beauty up.