“His eyes are closed, either because he is asleep or because he has chosen to cut out the world. How complete the blackness must be when a deaf man closes his eyes.”
Isolation is a powerful theme in any work of fiction and Georgina Harding’s Painter of Silence is no different. The story unfolds around the life of the male protagonist, Augustin, in war-torn Romania in a small town of Poiana during the Stalin years, separated from the world of words because he is a mute. The son of a housekeeper in the family home of the Valeanus, a friendship develops between him and Safta, the daughter of the Valeanus’, one that overcomes the barriers of words and speech almost as if he understood the “silent side of herself”.
The story revolves around their friendship, one that spans from childhood during the 1930s, through the beginning and the end of the Second World War. Other important characters also enter and exit the tale, from Augustin’s mother and her attempts to help her son through God and his disciples, nurse Adrianna who cares for Augustin at the hospital and later at home, and the mysterious Andrei who was Safta’s friend and then lover. The trials, from strict upbringing to the dislocation and disorientation of war suffered by the two protagonists and their friends, are depicted in a poignant and beautiful manner. Harding explores the theme of isolation from a personal, social, and political context. Even when surrounded by people, in essence one remains alone.
One of the most important aspects of this theme is Augustin’s way of communicating with the world — not through words but through the strokes of his paint brush. He is able to provide a picture to others of his perception of the world but Harding captures his frustration in trying to depict the effect of not only the war on his emotional state but also of the simple act of discerning the past from the present. The two intermingle throughout the text. The weaving of old memories with new or current events is treated in the same manner as the different voices of the narrative. They all come together to form the tapestry of Augustin’s life. Throughout the novel, the reader understands the circumstances around him and it is only towards the end that a window to the wordless world of Augustin opens — when he begins to use his images and paintings to render a personal narrative to the one person who would understand him: Safta. But though Augustin is unable to communicate, others feel comfortable sharing with him their innermost thoughts and emotions. Harding’s representation of this ability of his is portrayed in “finding a voice for thoughts she has hardly acknowledged herself”.
The effect of the political on the lives of the characters is also highly relevant considering the backdrop of the war. Harding’s story also comments on how war isolates so many — those fighting at the front away from their homes and families like Adriana’s son, as well as those waiting for it to end. Such a political climate affects the lives of all people — information is limited and sketchy at best. Safta tries several times to find information about Augustin’s mother but she knows no one in Poiana anymore, because Poiana itself is not the place it used to be. She herself is alone in this war — her family migrated to safety, abandoning the family home before the war began. She chose to stay and serve as a nurse in the hope of meeting a love she had lost, a person who promised her the world and then disappeared.
This theme of isolation resonates throughout the novel. Another instance of this that strikes the reader the most is the assertion that one of the precepts of religion is the ability to read. Almost as if faith is something that one reads rather than anything else. A devout Christian and Safta’s mother, Mrs Valeanue tries to teach Augustin letters because she believes it her duty to bring him to God: “Without language, how can he know God?” Therefore his separation from the world of letters results in a separation from the world of God Himself.
Painter of Silence is a captivating read, a book in which some of the simplest emotions are described in the most vivid detail. Parts of the text are narratives from the differing perspectives adopted by various characters but it is towards the end of the novel that one discovers the male protagonist’s own version of his life rather than others’ account of it. The end of the story is unfortunately disappointing as Harding attempts to give a sort of fairytale ending to a book that is anything but a fairytale.
Painter of Silence
By Georgina Harding