‘Is a man responsible for what he sees, or only for what he looks at?’
Georgina Harding’s fourth novel, The Gun Room, opens with such raw and vivid description of war that you will get lost in the fluid imagery – as if you yourself are there to witness all of this unfold. We are introduced to Jonathan, a photojournalist, and we feel his excitement slowly turn into horror until only numbness and hollowed words remain. As if caught in a photo, we are merely given a glimpse of the aftermath just like Jonathan, and we can only speculate what occurred before the chaos – ‘Before the dust and the smoke, before the flames. Before any screams or gunshots. A village going about its morning.’ We see War’s presence linger and seep into the words on the page. War has been a huge part of Jonathan’s life all along. It has always been there. He can try to run away, he can try to bury the memories – but he can never escape.
He gets his chance for the perfect photo of a blankly staring soldier leaning against a wall, the minute detail stark and as sharp as the chaos that happened mere moments ago. This photo will make his career. It will have his name on the front page of magazines. Yet it is precisely this moment that drives the whole novel forward – and not because of the fame it brings.
Despite Jonathan’s preference to photograph in black and white, colours are very prominent in the novel. Yet this only emphasizes the trauma that remains with him even as he flies to Japan to escape what he has witnessed in Vietnam – ‘This time again it was vivid.’ He notes about the dreams that plague him. ‘There were colours to it: orange dust, orange soil, stained with red.’ Japan is almost dream-like in comparison to the grit and blood of the war in Vietnam, ‘so light, hollow, none of them quite real’ and Jonathan drowns himself in the midst of colour and sounds and lights yet ‘he felt muted, pale with doubt.’
What was particularly interesting was Harding’s use of italicised paragraphs that produced a seemingly fractured narrative. Like a photo, the italicised paragraphs seems to look at the wider picture, the events, and the places outside of Jonathan’s introspection. They give us perspective of the external world that continues to happen even as the war in Jonathan’s mind rages on.
He meets Kumiko and for a brief moment he doesn’t feel so lost and hollow, for a brief moment he forgets the war. He meets Jim and it all comes crashing back; the photograph, his responsibility as a witness – it all eventually catches up to him. The memory never did leave because ‘there are images that stay like stains on the memory. However you rub at them, however many other images you gather to replace them, they don’t go.’ And despite photographs seemingly immortalising a moment in time and illustrating a narrative, there are many things a photo can miss; ‘because there was movement in it, and smell and sound, and continuity, the passing of time.’
Exploring ideas on memory, photography, alienation, war and trauma, Georgina Harding’s The Gun Room provokes questions that relate to our modern age. After all, a picture may be worth a thousand words – but only the words they have chosen to speak.