The Silent Artist and Others: Revisiting Painter of Silence (2012) by Georgina Harding

Painter of Silence, by Georgina Harding, published by Bloomsbury, 2012

9781408824467‘Silence’ has appeared and reappeared in various shapes and colours throughout the course of literature. ‘Silence’ might characterize the agony of the muteness of the colonized, who were deprived of their local vernaculars and were forced to use the language of their colonial masters. In the popular fairy tales and folk tales, ‘silence’ is what defines an ideal woman. On the other hand in contemporary literature, ‘silence’ is manifested more as resistance against sexism. However, the ‘silence’ that appears in Georgina Harding’s third novel, Painter of Silence, is altogether different. It is a silence that haunts and captivates the reader’s mind and takes him on a journey that cannot be summed up in words.

In a world that is so noisy and chaotic, silence is indeed a treasure worth safekeeping. Harding’s Painter of Silence, published in 2012, is an enchanting tale which revolves around a friendship between two individuals — a relationship that is far beyond the precincts of words and extends into the realm of wordlessness. The movement of the novel begins during the early 1950s, in Iasi, a small city in Communist Romania. A young, anonymous vagrant collapses on the stairs of a hospital in Iasi. He remains a mystery to everybody at the hospital because of his inability to speak. Only one woman recognizes him and brings him paper and pencils as she knows where his interests lie. Her name is Safta (a diminutive of Elisabeta), and she could never have mistaken the identity of the youth, but she has her reasons for not confiding the fact that she knew him. They grew up together at her country manor in Poiana, which seemed to be a whole world away as the intervening years had added innumerable bleeding gashes to humanity in the form of the Second World War. Born six months apart, Safta shared a very deep connection with Augustin and understood him like no one else, “…he was the silent side of her self” [32]. The novel’s main concern might be Safta and Augustin but there are various undercurrents which add to the complexity of its plot – one of which is Safta’s short relationship with a young man which affected her deeply.

The novel works its course through moving back and forth in time as the past and present fuse seamlessly, creating a life-like experience. The work is interesting as it carves out the history of Romania before, during and after the Second World War, which is reflected through the experiences of the characters. Life before the war was not an ideal one. There were many problems in the manor house at Poiana, yet that is where Safta and the cook Paraschiva’s boy Augustin or Tinu, shared their childhood across the boundaries of class. She discovered that Tinu was a gifted painter and was capable of writing down words without necessarily understanding what they mean. However, Safta and her mother’s every effort to teach him to read and write failed. His teacher Fraulein Lore had rightly said, “…words were nothing to him. He does not see the point of learning them.”[51] He was more at home with horses and seemed to understand the mute animals better than everyone else. Augustin failed to comprehend the human world properly and tried to make sense of it through his art. As he was unable to process complex emotions as expressed through facial expressions, his cardboard men were essentially faceless.

Harding has used many colours to paint her story but none of them are as abundant and unsettling as the colour grey. The autumn when Safta and Tinu visit the park is described as grey: “…grey walls, grey buildings angled across the side of the hills.”[3] Augustin had also lost his will for painting with colours after a traumatic experience at a camp. Adriana a nurse at the hospital took in Augustin and introduced him as her son to her neighbours. It was in her apartment that he resumed to sketch. Gradually Augustin tries to communicate his memories to Safta through his sketches. Safta tells him once: “You were always there, watching.” [274] There are lots of looking and gazing at things from the outside. One finds Tinu looking at incidents from outside just like the readers. He saw things and he retained them in his memory and these snippets of past incidents often resurfaced in Tinu’s sketches and paintings. It is not only Tinu who sees, there are other characters who silently observe and reminisce. Each of these characters has a unique story to share and often their silences convey their deep pain and anguish to the readers. Adriana finds herself lonelier in the presence of a mirror. What is left is only nostalgia for the past. Adriana perhaps knew all along that her son Ioan would never return yet she never gave up her hope until the very end. By naming Augustin Ioan she seemed to have tried to recreate a life closer to the one she had in her past. Her neighbour, who also happens to be the former owner of the house to which she was reallocated, is also a deeply troubled woman whose two bright daughters were arrested during the Stalinist regime for not being politically correct in the choice of their employer. Her husband contemplates their plight and wonders:

“There was a past and now there is this present that is only a waiting for the future. It goes on indefinitely, it goes on too long.” [214]

This line reflects the preoccupation with waiting for something, which is a recurrent theme of the post war literature. The war that came and went had not only taken chunks of the earth or torn families apart; it had also dug holes in men’s hearts and stole slices from parts of their souls. Safta has almost forgotten who she was in the past by pretending to disconnect herself from it. The novel traces her journey to a deadened and silent past in order to return Augustin to the place where he belonged as the city seemed to have closed in on him.

Augustin’s silence was a source of comfort for many people including his friend, Safta. His deaf ears served as the receptacle of many people’s darkest secrets. However the same silence was equally disturbing for others, for instance the interrogator at the camp who regarded his silence as a sign of impudence and called him: “A silent hooligan…. A vagabond, a subversive, a danger to society. ” [268]

The novel traces the silence not only of Tinu but also others who surrounded him. Safta’s grandfather’s act of killing his prized Lipizzaner to save it from being taken by the Russians and by extension to save his own pride from being tainted by the Russians silently raises question on the notion of honour. The animal was silenced by Constantin Valeanu to save his ‘self’ from getting maimed by the Russians whom he perceived as the ‘other’. Harding silently and subtly raises such questions and leaves it to the readers to decide the answers. In the end, the reader realizes that it is primarily a lilting tale of love. It is a love that exists between two very different people. It is an emotion whose intensity persists not just in spite of difference but because of it. The ending of the novel might be a bit farfetched but the story about the silent man and his friend is sure to leave every reader speechless.

– Aishwarya Das Gupta

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