In Romania, a nation of deep yet tragic history, The Spy Game author Georgina Harding found her next story, The Painter of Silence. When a mysterious patient shows up at the hospital, Safta is sure she’s seen him before. Using drawings to communicate what he cannot, Augustin begins sharing with her his memories of when they were children together, and how he’s survived since the war began. As Harding shares with us, first-hand research was key when tackling the challenging subjects of accurately reporting a complicated national history and in portraying a deaf protagonist who is unable to communicate with those around him.
Bookish: The narrative revolves around Augustin, who is deaf and can communicate only through drawing pictures. What were the challenges in creating and writing for this character?
Georgina Harding: A lot of challenges there, with hindsight. At the time of writing, I just got fascinated by the idea of how someone who was utterly deaf might experience the world, and how, without words, he might think.
I read all I could find that was relevant—descriptions and memoirs—and then I looked and looked at a the pictures of the American artist James Castle, who was deaf and mute and drew all his life, like my character Augustin. And then I wrote, and all the time I wrote, tried to imagine how it would be to know no sound—not of the pen on the paper, nor the world at your back.
Bookish: What drew you to the idea of having a protagonist who had a limited ability to communicate with the other characters?
GH: I am always interested in the spaces that fall between people: the silences and the miscommunications. A silent protagonist gave me the opportunity to delve deeper into this.
Bookish: The novel is set in Romania under Nazi, and then Soviet, occupation. Why did you decide to set the novel there? How did you go about researching the location?
GH: I have been visiting Romania, and loved the country, since I first went there in 1988. The idea of the book began with my knowledge of its tragic history during and after the second World War. I read what I could—memoirs published and unpublished—but there’s not much available in English; besides, first-hand accounts are more valuable. So, I went back through some of the areas that were most affected in the war and spoke to old people in villages.
Bookish: Augustin’s only friend, Safta, the once-privileged daughter at the estate of the family where Augustin’s mother was a servant, becomes a nurse during WWII. There is some hint that she and Augustin were collaborators on some level, at least in the eyes of the Soviets. Did your ideas about who were the bystanders, the victims, and perpetrators of evil under Nazi rule in Eastern Europe change as you researched the period?
GH: I’m not sure that they are regarded as collaborators, but it is necessary for them to conceal certain truths about themselves from Soviet eyes. It is other characters who are forced into collaboration. The more you understand about the life of ordinary people under totalitarian rule, the more you become aware of the grey areas, the compromises which they must make in order to survive, so that each individual is somehow made complicit in their own oppression.
Bookish: Do you have a writing ritual that you adhere to?
GH: No writing ritual—but a great liking for pencils, even when I do most of my writing on a laptop. Sharpening them is an aid to concentration!
Bookish: Who were the authors that inspired and influenced you when writing this book?
GH: So many authors and influences go through your head when you work. Constant influences perhaps, in this book in particular, include the Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas. Elizabeth Bishop, always, for the clarity in her words.
Bookish: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?
GH: I have no regular indie bookstore I visit. My life is a little peripatetic, so I go to Daunts in London, Red Lion Books in Colchester, the wonderful Toppings in Ely. I was just in Kolkata where there’s a whole street by the university lined with second-hand bookstalls. What a way to while away a day!