Snapshots of the walking wounded
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