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“Separate Yourself From The Person You Were”: Georgina Harding’s “Painter of Silence”

Painter of Silence, Georgina Harding’s third novel, is a book about dislocation. It may or may not, then, be deliberate that it, too, has its own odd discontinuities. The jury of the Orange Prize clearly saw merit in the novel, and I hesitate to pass summary judgement on a book which benefits from what is very often rather beautiful – if overly stately – prose. It is the story of Augustin and Safta, respectively the illegitimate son of the cook on a sprawling, idyllic interwar Romanian estate – and the daughter of the estate’s Count. Tinu, as Augustin is known, is educated with Safta – the Count is, as you might imagine, kindly in a patrician kind of way – and their adolescence proceeds in much the way you would expect: they are close, and understand each other, but are separated by class and expectation.

The greatest rupture between Safta and Tinu, however, is the latter’s deafness. “How complete the blackness must be when a deaf man closes his eyes,” one character muses early on. “The world exists then only by touch and smell.” [pg. 13]   The rest of the novel is very much concerned with undermining this concept of the deaf man as an island; on the other hand, just as Harding gives her benevolent Count the countervailing sin of adultery, Tinu is never allowed to become (as Lili in Foreign Bodies, also a Romanian, is at times) an unnatural seer. He is in many ways rather slow and uncertain – the kind of character Patroclus is meant to be in The Song of Achilles. Harding, however, follows through much better on depicting Tinu’s difficulties through the shifts in perspective which revolve around him than Miller manages to convey through Patroclus’s voice.

Indeed, much of Painter of Silence is told not by Tinu but by Safta, “who had come to know [Tinu] with a quick intuition as if he was the silent side of her self.” [pg. 32]  The novel begins in the early 1950s, when Augustin shows up at Iași’s under-resourced hospital, where Safta is working as a nurse. The Second World War is the novel’s greatest disruption, and Safta is ambivalent about Tinu’s rearrival in her life: she has blotted out her past, to avoid the Communist retribution for her aristocratic past, and she has remained in Romania when the rest of her family have fled further West. For all the characters, the War exists as a kind of veil placed over what they and their country used to be.

“You’re living in the Middle Ages here,” remarks Andrei, the man with whom Safta falls in love before the War (much of the novel is told in rather detailed flashbacks) [pg. 105]. Safta resists this conclusion because she instinctively recognises that ‘modernisation’ will be a brutal affair (for her part, Harding loads the dice by depicting pre-war Romania as a rural idyll – even the servants are smiling). When Tinu arrives at the hospital, nameless and without ID, he is named Ioan by the staff – and for all intents and purposes, this is who he becomes. When we join Safta in her frequent recollections of times past, we realise that not just Tinu but Romania has been diminished in the passage of time – from a name with, when spoken, forward momentum and energy to one “with no movement to it. No plosion in it, nothing to feel.” [pg. 43]

The problem with all this, however, is that feelings are constantly described by Harding rather than evoked. There’s a persistently archaic quality to the novel, and characters speak to each other and to us in a circumlocutory, strained tenor. When Safta first learns of Tinu’s admission, she says to the doctor: “Excuse me for interrupting. I couldn’t help overhearing what you said just then. I have not seen this man. I wonder, if he is mute, might I perhaps go and see him? I might help, perhaps. I have some experience you see of mutes.” [pg. 12]  If this is meant to suggest Safta’s hesitancy, it is also representative of how she speaks to another character, who knows all about her and Tinu, much later in the book:

“What will you do?”

“I have to return to Iași.”

“And him?”

“I don’t know. I know that hee need to be out of the city. There’s a sanatorium. I was meant to take him there.”

“He doesn’t need a sanatorium.”

“No.” [pg. 301]

This, too, is indicative of the other disruption which renders the book’s prosody a rather rough surface: Tinu himself. He is in that conversation, of course, an entirely passive presence, wholly deserving of Safta’s assumption that, “For him there are only moments, each one present and immediate, but no sense of the hours and days passing; no continuity, before and after.” [pg. 245]   It appears to be Harding’s project, however, in those parts of the book told from Tinu’s own perspective, and in which he fills in the gaps left to us by Safta’s great hiatus from her family and her past between the late 1930s and 1952, to refute this position; for Harding, Tinu’s facility with animals – he becomes the estate’s horsegroom, communicating “by touch and by the movements of his hands, even by eye” [pg. 70] – does not indicate that he thinks like an animal, too.

Unfortunately, and despite endless paragraphs centring around Tinu’s principle method of communication – exquisite pictures he draws to evoke and describe events, places and emotions – Harding never quite manages to imagine herself into his head. The most obvious examples of this failure involve Tinu’s narration rev0lving around what people say to him – for instance, he is interrogated towards the close of the war by arriving Soviet troops who find his drawings on papers he has been given featuring the defaced image of Stalin. Harding depicts the interrogation from Tinu’s perspective and with perfect recall, seemingly unable to imagine a means of writing us more convincingly close to her protagonist. This only re-emphasises his passivity, of course – the not-quite-realness the novel seeks to reject. “What had occurred,” Harding writes of him at one point, “seemed to have occurred all within himself, not outside him.” [pg. 205]  That the novel fails to imagine precisely this interiority seemed to me a significant flaw.

All of Tinu’s attempts to inform Safta about what happened on the estate after she had left, and what happened to that man with whom she fell in love, therefore seem as circumlocutory, as weirdly stiff, as the dialogue itself. What the novel collapses in on is ultimately a kind of sentimentality – the duo return, of course, to the old house where they discover, of course, some truths about themselves and, of course, the author unveils a convenient wrapping-up point for her characters. In many ways, this is a careful, sensitive retelling of what can be a forgotten history – Romania’s wartime experience is often forgotten or neglected this side of the erstwhile Iron Curtain, and Harding is good at making luminous the ordinary, daily lives of those who suffered its depredations. On the other hand, it is ultimately a novel which spends a lot of time to teach us that, “Of course [Tinu] has memories. Only they will not take the shape of words.” [pg. 18]  This is a rather simple lesson when the teacher cannot also show us, in words of their own which nevertheless fit Tinu’s wordless imaginings, what shape they do take.

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2 thoughts on ““Separate Yourself From The Person You Were”: Georgina Harding’s “Painter of Silence”

  1. mefinx says:

    Thanks for such a good review. I’ve been wondering whether to work through the Orange shortlist (I did the Bookers last year) and this has helped me make my mind up.

    On the subject of pre-war Romania, have you ever read any Patrick le Fermor? I recomment “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water” which recount his walking tour of Europe in the 1930s.

    • danhartland says:

      Glad you enjoyed the piece! I think this year’s Orange shortlist is on balance weaker that last year’s – although a most of the novels are certainly still worth reading, so don’t let me put you off!

      On Leigh Fermor, I haven’t read him – but Harding cites him as a key influence on Painter of Silence is this Q&A.

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