What does it mean to communicate? How can we give meaning to our deepest fears and our greatest tragedies? What language is suitable? And what if we have no words? Augustin, the titular painter in Georgina Harding’s Painter of Silence, has no words. Deaf since birth, he never acquired language, other than the letters he learned to copy without knowing their meaning and a handful of names he learned to write. So he tells his story in his art—through delicate, painstakingly colored cutout figures to represent people and animals and through pencil drawings whose sometime blackness echoes what we imagine to be his own pain.
Augustin turns up at a hospital in 1950s Iași, Romania, with no way to communicate who he is or why he’s there. He’s clearly not well, and the staff initially assumes that he’s a soldier still coping with war injuries, but one of the nurses, Safta, knows the truth. She brings him paper and pencils and coaxes him with drawings of the home they both knew as children, before time and war forced them away and apart. Together, the two now look back over their pasts as Augustin attempts to tell Safta a story she needs to know and Safta attempts to find healing and a home for Augustin.
Most of the plot in this novel is pretty standard fare for war novels, but Harding’s evocative writing, as well as her choice of main character, gives it an original spin. Harding takes a risk in making her central character someone who has no language, and she’s fairly (but not absolutely) disciplined about not expressing his thoughts in words. We see what he does and what he creates, and once in a while we’re told what he feels, but we have to intuit a lot.
At times, this lack of written and spoken language makes Augustin seem childlike. One of the nurses, who takes him in and makes him her son for a while, thinks of him this way:
She talks to him all the time that she is with him, as if he is a baby that must be talked to if it is to become attuned to the human voice and learn the patterns and the sounds of speech. It does not matter what she says any more than it would matter what she were to say to a baby that she was feeding. The message is there in the tone of her voice—or if it is really as she thinks and he cannot hear her voice, then it is in her touch and her manner, in the shapes made by her lips and the warm breath from them so close upon his cheek.
The implications of this characterization are troubling. The characters turn Augustin into their own personal sounding board, someone they can confess to or imprint their own desires on. Because he has no clear way to express his will, he gets treated as if he has none. His existence seems mostly to serve the other characters, not to be a whole person in his own right. Instead of a magical negro, we get a magical deaf-mute who brings enlightenment and healing through his art.
At least that’s how it seemed for a while. But as I read on, eased along by Harding’s gorgeous prose, I came to suspect that Augustin is not so much there for all the others as he is all the others. He represents everyone who gets swept along in the current of war. The people, the property, and the provisions get appropriated for purposes of the powerful, and they have no language that’s effective for getting them what they want. Safta remembers that in 1947, “They were all of them disempowered, powerless even to give meaning to themselves.”
Language on its own communicates nothing if we choose not to use it and if no one is listening. Augustin may not have a language that others can easily understand, but the others haven’t had much more success at revealing themselves, even with language. To some extent, we all suffer in silence.
Painter of Silence was shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize and is being published in the United States by Bloomsbury this week.