Although I’ve enjoyed most of the Orange Prize winning novels that I’ve read over the years, I’ve been disappointed with a couple. (Notably the over-hyped The Tiger’s Wife (2011) which I read but could not be bothered reviewing here, having wasted enough time reading it). Like other prizes, the Orange goes through phases of losing its way in the ‘accessibility’ debate, especially when the prize jury lacks a representative from the literary fiction world. But they have made no mistake in shortlisting Painter of Silence. It is a very good book indeed, and I am indebted to Kim from Reading Matters who brought this book to my attention. See her review here.
Set postwar in Iași, a city in Romania, Painter of Silence traces the story of Augustin, a deaf-mute, who has found his way across a war-ravaged landscape to give a message to Safta, his childhood friend since their days on the Valeanu family estate at Poiana. This period of Romania’s history included the collectivization of agriculture, forced nationalisations of private property and a reign of terror to eliminate all forms of opposition, real or imagined. There can be few books which so vividly convey the drabness and deprivation of such Soviet satellite states under Stalin … never having been to Romania myself and having seen reports only about the toxic reign of Nicolae Ceaușescu (1965- 1989), I was unprepared to discover from Wikipedia that post-Communist Iași is considered the cultural and academic capital of Romania. It is a tourist’s paradise for those interested in art, architecture and history. Painter of Silence shows the reader a different Iași indeed.
Augustin is able to communicate only by drawing, and he has no papers, no identity. While his silent presence renders him almost invisible in some contexts, Safta must conceal their previous relationship because it would betray her as a member of a privileged class now subject to suspicion, harassment and worse. Although he can’t explain what has happened to him or why he has come, Augustin needs to be nursed back to physical and mental health and then discreetly found a home somewhere. In an overcrowded city where refugees cram into collectivized housing, an extra resident – even one so unobtrusive as Augustin – causes problems beyond the obvious. Already the people show signs of the paranoia and jealousy so well documented in Anna Funder’s Stasiland…
In restrained prose, the narrative steers between Safta’s interpretation of events, Augustin’s one-dimensional observations as revealed in his pictures, and an occasional narrator to fill the gaps for the reader. It shifts seamlessly between the nostalgic past of wealth and privilege, the grim years of war as the Germans and Soviets battled over this territory and the melancholy present: missing persons, hunger and cold, dirty drab buildings and unremitting hopelessness. The story gradually reveals blighted lives and the horrors they have experienced. But it is not a dreary book, not at all. Shafts of light, colour and beauty thread through the narrative like stained glass windows illuminating stone flags of a shabby church.
Although Safta’s family is wealthy and Augustin is the fatherless child of the estate’s cook, the childhood friendship initially transcended differences of class. The boy attended lessons with the governess and because of his talent at drawing, Safta’s mother had hopes of finding him employment with nearby monks who illustrated religious texts. But as time went by and it became clear that their paths must diverge, Augustin worked in the stables and Safta briefly enjoyed the social life of a privileged young woman, and a brief romance. Then the war came, and in its wake, the Soviet nightmare…
Like Hermann Melville’s Billy Budd, Augustin is an illegitimate child and shares the same innocence, lack of guile and a gentle charm. Like Budd, who was unable to refute false charges against him because of a speech impediment, Augustin’s profound deafness means he cannot defend himself against evil. But among his small circle of friends and protectors his habit of observant silence encourages these lonely people to tell him their innermost thoughts. How much he knows and understands is not revealed, and characters wonder what conception of the world he might have. The local Abbott doubts that without words, Augustin can have no sense of God, and Safta wonders about his grasp of time. He seems to live entirely in the present, enjoying sensory activities such as grooming horses, and drawing, obsessively drawing to record what he sees in front of him. How he can fulfil his promise and explain to Safta what the important message is, becomes the focus of the story.
There is also an interesting review at Lizzy’s Literary Life. Highly recommended.
Author: Georgina Harding
Title: Painter of Silence
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2012
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library