Here's the start -
|Though he has seen photographs of cities he has never been in one before. In the dusk as the train came in it looked monochrome as the photos: black smears of road, grey walls, grey buildings angled across the sides of hills. The buildings appeared singly at first then massed, most of them solid but some hollow so that he could see through them to the sky as it darkened. Between the buildings there were the bare outlines of trees - still there were trees - but the forest was gone.|
Then we go back to his childhood (born 1926, fatherless, in Romania), switching between the two time-lines. The viewpoint frequently switches too, from omniscient to various 3rd-person privileged modes. The male character is deaf and dumb, so his viewpoint is restricted. The author is at pains to make clear that he's not (very) autistic (he's interested in behaviour, and his art-works are normal enough).
As a child (son of a peasant) he played with the children of the big house. He (Tinu) and Safta (short for Elisabeta) were similar in age. It's Safta who cares for him in the first paragraph's time-line - she happens to work in the same hospital where he ended up. She, like others, talks in his presence (though they know he can't hear) as a type of therapy - "telling him what she can tell no one else. Finding a voice for thoughts she has hardly acknowledged to herself" (p.111); "She thought that she had disconnected herself from the past" (p.110). Tinu's deafness becomes a useful narrative device, providing an excuse for characters to monologue (i,e. infodump).
She's seen what the war's done -
- "There are the people we are inside, then the people we used to be, then there are the people other people think we are" (p.153)
- "There were all the obvious wounded, the bloody one, shot up and screaming, and then there were the ones who looked all right until you went to speak to them and looked into their eyes. They didn't speak back. They didn't even seem to see you. It was as if the outside world didn't exist for them any more" (p.154)
Tinu can pass as one of these war-wounded soldiers. Actually he was in the big house during the war, trying to make sense of what's happening, soldiers passing through. A soldier accidentally kills his mother. Tinu kills a different soldier in cold-blooded revenge.
His art work becomes more significant as the book progresses. There are doubts as to whether he can depict anything except the here and now, but later he manages to represent images from the past -
- "Often he continues with the drawings long after the point at which she has thought they were finished. He goes on shading and overdrawing until the details disappear" (p.195)
- "For him there are only moments, each one present and immediate, but no sense of the hours and days passing; no continuity, before and after" (p.245)
He doesn't draw people - they're represented as mostly rectangular collaged objects. The Russians find his art which is decorated with random words that he doesn't understand. He's imprisoned.
At the end Tinu and Safta return to the house where they grew up. Tinu draws pictures to make her understand what happened while she was away. He's not used art to communicate before. Tinu and Safta make preserve from plums. Tinu leaves with his father, who appears out of the blue. As a parting gift, Tinu gives Safta a book of drawings of the house "that often mix the present and the past together" (p.304). A very tidy ending.
- Clare Clark (The novel has its weaknesses – Andrei, the young man with the green car, is a frustratingly sketchy character, while the improbable neatness of the ending undermines the novel's subtle complexity – but these are decisively outweighed by its pleasures.)
- Philip Womack (Harding’s writing has a careful, lilting fluency which nourishes a slow-burning momentum. Although there ought to be a law against the now ubiquitous present tense, the post-war scenes in which Harding employs this technique are not entirely egregious, and do add a certain urgency. There are problems with using Tinu’s point of view – when soldiers come to Poiana, we don’t know what they’re there for, which is a little perplexing for the reader.)