Snap­shots of the walk­ing wounded

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - He­len El­liott

A few years ago Bri­tish nov­el­ist Ge­orgina Hard­ing wrote a novel set in Ro­ma­nia called The Pain­ter of Si­lence. It was her third novel and de­servedly brought her into sharp fo­cus with read­ers who were keen on what the pub­lish­ing houses call lit­er­ary fic­tion. (The most un­com­pli­cated ver­sion of lit­er­ary fic­tion is writ­ing where the main plea­sure does not come from the plot.)

Hard­ing, who is based in Lon­don and Es­sex, be­gan her writ­ing life as a travel writer and ev­ery­thing she writes is in­ti­mately, and un­usu­ally, in­formed by geog­ra­phy. The Pain­ter of Si­lence came di­rectly from her time tour­ing Ro­ma­nia on a bike in 1988. The Gun Room con­cerns the other side of the world. It opens in Viet­nam in the 1960s. Jonathan, a young English­man, is trav­el­ling the world with a cam­era slung about his neck.

He calls him­self a free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher but feels a fraud and he cer­tainly doesn’t re­ally know what he’s do­ing here in the midst of war. He meets an Amer­i­can in a bar soon after he ar­rives and the next day finds him­self hitch­ing a ride on a he­li­copter that is go­ing into ac­tion. The he­li­copter lands and Jonathan, with 20 min­utes to shoot, starts run­ning to­wards the smoke, dis­ap­pointed be­cause it seems the ac­tion is over and he’s missed out.

It is ex­actly the op­po­site. Jonathan has landed in a cir­cle of hell. The village has been “cleared” and de­tails of this par­tic­u­lar hell hit his retina so fu­ri­ously, his brain can’t cal­i­brate what he’s see­ing. He runs through the village clutch­ing his cam­era, scarcely con­scious of where he is or what he’s do­ing. He takes a swift pic­ture of an Amer­i­can sol­dier sit­ting against a wall, star­ing, en­tirely still. When he re­turns the sol­dier is still there ex­actly as Jonathan left him and this time Jonathan knows that the he­li­copter will have to wait for him. He com­poses the shot, record­ing the dust on the sol­dier’s fin­gers, the con­trast­ing gleam of dust on his gun, the bris­tle of his beard, his star­ing eyes. And then he shoots and shoots. What his cam­era records is the trace of an empty soul. The boy­ish, heroic sol­dier is beau­ti­ful but his soul has fled. This pic­ture cap­tures a truth that is im­pos­si­ble to re­late in lan­guage.

There are ob­vi­ous com­mon­al­i­ties be­tween shoot­ing with a cam­era and shoot­ing with a gun, cap­tur­ing an im­age, cap­tur­ing a foe. One might seem more deadly than the other, but per­haps that’s too re­duc­tion­ist. Cer­tain pho­to­graphs in­ter­cept rather than cap­ture.

The sol­dier pho­to­graph be­comes fa­mous, one of the few great war pic­tures. And the pho­tog­ra­pher is paid ac­cord­ingly. With the money from this and the other shock­ing pic­tures of the village, Jonathan, drift­ing, finds him­self in Tokyo. In Tokyo he pho­to­graphs fig­ures within and against the city. He fran­ti­cally but me­thod­i­cally pho­to­graphs ma­te­ri­al­ity in all forms, try­ing to catch the space be­tween the gaze of the pho­tog­ra­pher and the knowa­bil­ity of what meets his eye. Is any­one, or any­thing, know­able? What is their re­al­ity? Is re­al­ity share­able?

Jonathan has post-trau­matic stress al­though he is un­aware of it. When he looks in the mirror he sees an­other man with­out a spirit. At a lan­guage school he meets Ku­miko, a young woman whose “at­trac­tive­ness [is] like that of pot­tery, not porce­lain”. He no­tices ev­ery­thing about her, par­tic­u­larly her bright­ness, an abil­ity to be vivid with life in all the daily, pre­cious de­tails. The first pic­ture he takes of her is in a sen­su­ous ar­bour of wis­te­ria. They start a love af­fair and Jonathan re­alises that, more than any­thing, he wants Ku­miko to know who he is. Then, walk­ing in Tokyo one day, he sees a tall for­eigner, ob­vi­ously an Amer­i­can. He looks fa­mil­iar and Jonathan is com­pelled to fol­low and to be­friend him. The past, he re­alises, will al­ways be in the present.

Hard­ing re­lies on quick, de­tached im­ages strung to­gether to build her novel. Each im­age is self-con­tained and the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect is one of still­ness and si­lence. The lit­tle di­a­logue there is, is only that which is es­sen­tial so the reader is drawn into the in­tensely vis­ual world of this trau­ma­tised young man. We see Ku­miko as colour and move­ment, Tokyo in sharp lines and mod­ernist geo­met­ric ar­range­ments. In all her work Hard­ing has a fas­ci­na­tion with iso­lated, or stalled, in­di­vid­u­als, those whose hold on life is so thin they feel im­ma­te­rial in the teem­ing world. Like Con­rad, the ques­tions she asks are about the deep­est and the most ephemeral pos­si­bil­i­ties of hu­man con­nect­ed­ness. This quiet writ­ing sug­gests the cat­a­clysmic pos­si­bil­i­ties that warmth as op­posed to cool­ness, and at­ten­tion in­stead of in­dif­fer­ence, can play in a sin­gle life.

The Gun Room re­quires at­ten­tive and pa­tient read­ing be­cause the tem­per­a­ture re­mains con­stant through­out. It will suit only cer­tain tem­per­a­ments. There are no rev­e­la­tions. Oblique, sub­tle, muted as cer­tain Ja­panese fans, as the novel un­folds the reader is ab­sorbed. In the end some­thing like hope starts to un­curl about this or­di­nary, bro­ken young man. is a Mel­bourne writer and jour­nal­ist.

Ge­orgina Hard­ing has a fas­ci­na­tion with iso­lated, or stalled, in­di­vid­u­als

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