A double portrait, executed in clean lines and strong light, of a daughter of the manor, a mute servant boy and the destruction of their settled life in rural Romania by World War II.
The English writer Harding has published both novels (The Spy Game, 2009, etc.) and nonfiction. Though the title refers to Augustin, nicknamed Tinu, a deaf-mute with a savant’s gift for drawing and whimsical constructions of paper and cardboard, much of the book belongs to Elisabeta, who answers to Safta. Safta and Tinu grow up alongside each other in decadent tranquility. Safta’s mother brings Tinu into the governess’ classroom to be educated alongside her own children. The failure of this initiative unravels the weak ties that bind the master’s child to the servant’s. Tinu and Safta lead separate, unequal lives. Safta’s brothers leave home, return for vacation; she falls in love. Tinu works in the stables. The war arrives. Circumstances drive them apart, and fate, it seems, reunites them. Throughout, Tinu continues his methodical recording of his surroundings in drawings and constructions. If he carries a torch for Safta, it burns no brighter than a match; he is locked in himself and locked out of the world. The slow accumulation of the details and implications of Tinu’s rejection of language is perhaps the finest of this book’s many excellences. The other characters, the author, even most readers, are trapped in language, and what looks like stubbornness is just as likely Tinu’s choice, a viable alternative to our given reality, even if it severely limits his capacity to share it. When Tinu’s drawings get him into trouble, Romanian words he copies for their forms, unaware or uninterested in their meanings, appear untranslated in the text, as strange to us as they are to him.
Harding has created a memorable portrait in words of an exile from language.