After reading alifeinbooks lovely blog about Georgina Harding’s The Gun Room I was inspired to finally pick up my copy of Painter of Silence, which is one of those books that, to my shame, has been sitting on my shelf for at least a couple of years waiting to be read. I bought it along with a bunch of other Orange Prize (as was) shortlisted books in a bundle from The Book People. And I’m not sure if I read any of them (shame). Anyway, the review of The Gun Room was the little push I needed, plus a recognition that I might benefit from reading fiction by writers other than Don DeLillo once in a while, so I decided to (finally) pick it up.
So, getting to the point after that very long introduction. Painter of Silence is set in Romania covering the period just before, during and after World War 2, and the story focuses on Augustin – a deaf mute (the ‘painter of silence of the story) – and Safta (Elisabeta) both of whom are affected by, and changed by, the war but in quite different ways. When the story begins we see Augustin travelling to the city of Iasi; he is looking for someone, but we don’t know who. He pitches up at the hospital, in a terrible sickly state, and is looked after by Adriana, a nurse who is waiting for her son to return from war. She soon figures out that he is deaf and mute, and calls on Safta, a fellow nurse who has some experience of deaf mutes, to help her. Unknown to Adriana, Augustin is the deaf mute that Safta is familiar with. They grew up together, Safta as a member of the local aristocracy and Augustin as the illegitimate son of a servant. However, because of the post-war situation neither can admit who they are though in Augustin’s case this is easy. He cannot speak. He has never acquired language or the ability to write, though he can draw. He communicates through his drawings, but the sickly hospitalised Augustin will not draw. He is unreachable.
The story flows back and forth between their shared and then separate past, and the present. Once he recovers, Adriana takes Augustin in to her small home giving him the name of her missing son Ioan. Safta has not revealed their connection or his identity. However, his presence there puts them all in danger; people are nervous, the environment toxic, and a stranger who isn’t who he is said to be (Adriana’s son) generates too much interest. Safta and Adriana arrange for Augustin to be sent to a sanatorium in the countryside, ostensibly to aid the recovery of his lungs but mostly to get him out of the city and away from prying eyes. So safta and Augustin visit their old home in Poiana, and their disparate stories start to come together.
I won’t say too much about the back story, it would spoil it I think. What I want to say most about this book is how gorgeously it is written because it was the sheer beauty of the writing which drew me in. Like here:
“He draws the rectangles, the road, the carts. With the side of his pencil he makes the smooth grey line of the hill down which they have come. Far away on top of this hill outlines small sharp black shapes that may be more people and carts. Then the picture is full and he turns the page and begins another. It would appear that this second picture is not improvised as the one before. There is a sense of composition in the positioning of all the elements – the horizon, the big carts in the foreground, the road – as if he has the entire picture in mind from the start. There is space in the centre of this picture where there was not in the last one for a bridge, raised a little out of the perspective so that all of its piers and spans are clearly visible. Beneath the bridge, a river. At this stage the picture is an accurate representation of a recognisable place; but he goes on drawing. Some whim intervenes.”
The writing has a meditative quality. It is quiet, like the hush of a pencil shading on paper there is a lulling sense to it. It is quite beautiful. The story, too, has this dreamlike quality to it. It is about the war, but the war is hidden it is not present in the sense that there are no battles, no overt references. Yet it is there, and the fear is there. A quiet, shadowy thing.
I very much enjoyed Painter of Silence, I enjoyed it more than I was expecting. It is a beautiful, sad story told in a beautiful way. I have recently struggled to read fiction, I haven’t had the appetite for it and I have put down more books than I’ve read, but not this one. This one pulled me into it gently, persuasively, and at the end I felt like I’d turned a corner. It is not flashy or showy, it is gentle and it reveals itself slowly like a painting. And like a painting it communicates more than just words.
Painter of Silence is published by Bloomsbury