Georgina Harding’s third novel is set amidst the upheavals of twentieth-century Romanian history: from the 1930s through the 1950s when what was still almost a feudal state was overturned by the cruelties of World War II and Stalinism. Yet the history is almost a backdrop, playing as a silent movie, just as it does in the life of the main protagonist, Augustin, a deaf mute.
At the novel’s start Augustin, is on the verge of death. He has made his way to the city of Iasi, in search of a girl from his childhood for whom he bears a tragic message. He collapses at the entrance of the city hospital, where the girl (woman now) he is seeking works. As she nurses him back to health, the story of their joint childhood and the lost years inbetween unfold in Augustin’s drawings. His is a prodigious talent; his artistry the only way in which he can communicate and he is adept at manifesting the message and mood of his subjects.
When Tinu drew a room he drew it empty. He drew it as it was but somehow what you saw was not the room but its emptiness. With a door you saw the opening. When he drew a pitchfork left leaning against the barn wall you saw its abandonment.
The story unfolds in two ways: in the childhood recollections of Safta, the nurse and the once privileged daughter of the manor at Poiana and through the drawings of Augustin, the cook’s son. Because Augustin has no language, he cannot explain his own pictures. Safta must do that also and thus there really is no differentiation in voice between the two narrators. Safta’s is an elegant, educated voice and her tone doesn’t always gel with the ugliness and brutality of the events that are being recounted. The disconnection is manifold: we are separated from the events by the passage of time, we are also separated from Augustin’s feelings because he has no way of expressing them. We observe as Augustin observes, puzzled by events and unable to tell what is a significant development until long after the event in question. Rendered separate by his disability Augustin is a very passive character except in one or two rare instances which verify that he is as capable of despair and revenge as the rest of mankind.
The Pakistani author, Aamer Hussein has said that he hates it when critics describe his work as quiet. There is so much emotional drama in his pages, he said, how can they be so? There’s a similar dichotomy at work here. 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.