Painter of Silence

Georgina Harding

SHORTLISTED FOR THE ORANGE PRIZE FOR FICTION 2012

When she leaves the ward she feels the whiteness of the room still inside her, as if she is bleached out inside. It is the shock, she tells herself. She feels the whiteness like a dam holding back all the coloured flood of memory. Iasi, Romania, the early 1950s.

A man is found on the steps of a hospital, frail as a fallen bird. He carries no identification and utters no words, and it is days before anyone discovers that he is deaf and mute. And then a young nurse called Safta brings paper and pencils with which he can draw. Slowly, painstakingly, memories appear on the page: a hillside, a stable, a car, a country house, dogs and mirrored rooms and samovars in what is now a lost world. The memories are Safta’s also. For the man is Augustin, son of the cook at the manor at Poiana that was her family home. Born six months apart, they grew up with a connection that bypassed words. But while Augustin’s world remained the same size Safta’s expanded to embrace languages, society – and love, as Augustin watched one long hot summer, in the form of a fleeting young man in a green Lagonda. Safta left before the war. Augustin stayed. But even in the wide hills and valleys around Poiana he did not escape its horrors. He watched uncomprehending as armies passed through the place. Then the Communists came, and he found himself their unlikely victim. There are things that he must tell Safta that may be more than simple drawings can convey. Beautiful, spare and intense, Painter of Silence captures the loss and the hope of a tragic time through the extraordinary vision of a mute outsider.

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