Having already made stops in Iceland and Argentina, it’s time to start my 2017 literary trip around the world in earnest, and the first leg of my Man Booker International Prize magical mystery tour takes me to Belgium. It’s more than a century now since the end of the First World War, but the scars of the Great War are still visible, particularly in literature, and today’s review sees us revisiting Flanders’ fields in an attempt to understand the life of a very special man…
War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans
– Harvill Secker, translated by David McKay
What’s it all about?
When Belgian writer Stefan Hertmans came into the possession of two notebooks in which his grandfather reflected on a pivotal period of his life, he knew that sooner or later he would have to bring the information to the wider world, and War and Turpentine is the resulting work. In a skillful mix of fiction and biography, Hertmans sets up the story by introducing the idea of the notebooks and discussing the early life of Urbain Martien, at the same time painting a picture of his country in the early nineteenth century. However, his main focus is on understanding a life so different from his own:
Thus the things he wished to forget kept coming back, in shards of stories or absurd details, and whether hell or heaven was the subject, shards and details like these were the puzzle pieces I had to fit together before I could begin to understand what had gone on inside him all his life: the battle between the transcendent, which he yearned for, and the memory of death and destruction, which held him in its clutches.
p.7 (Pantheon Books, 2016)
When you learn that Urbain was born in 1891, it’s not hard to guess where all this is heading.
Sure enough, the second section takes us into battle, with the writer putting his musings aside in favour of his grandfather’s own first-person account of the First World War. As the Belgian army is pushed back by the stronger, better-equipped Wehrmacht, Urbain (writing decades later) describes the hardship, the terror and (unbelievably) the boredom of the average soldier in the trenches. However, there’s a further twist in store. The third part takes us back to the grandson, and as he briefly describes Urbain’s life after the war, details from the first section suddenly make more sense, and the picture of the old man’s life is finally complete.
I’d never read anything by Hertmans before this, but War and Turpentine is certainly an impressive book, the work of an excellent writer (and translator – even if a few Americanisms in my US edition jarred a little). From the very first page, comparisons with Sebald are not only inevitable but unavoidable, with a black-and-white photograph before we even get to the text. The first lines again tread a Sebaldian path, with Hertmans describing a memory of his grandfather:
In my most distant memory of my grandfather, he is on the beach at Ostend: a man of sixty-six in a neat midnight-blue suit, he has dug a shallow pit with his grandson’s blue shovel and leveled off the heaped sand around it so that he and his wife can sit in relative comfort. He has slightly raised the sandbank behind them for shelter from the August wind, which blows over the receding line of waves and out to sea under high wisps of haze. (p.3)
This style runs throughout the first and third parts as the writer switches between reflecting on his memories, examining the notebooks and travelling around the country in search of places his grandfather mentions.
One of the strengths of the novel is the gradual development of Urbain’s character, with Hertmans revealing more information with each page. Perhaps the most striking feature of his grandfather is his passion for painting, inherited from his father (hence the title), and the grandson attempts to discover the background behind the many oil paintings the old man left behind (often copies of masterpieces). In the second section, Urbain himself recounts his drive to draw, even in the midst of war, using charcoal and any scraps of paper he can get his hands on to sketch his comrades – many of whom will soon be dead.
While it’s easy to focus on the conflict, in fact, it’s the painting that takes centre stage, and the way Hertmans structures his work, using his grandfather’s paintings to drive his narrative, with secrets hinted at in the first section being revealed towards the end of the book, pushes us to concentrate on the man rather than the war. One of the most intriguing aspects of War and Turpentine is the shadow the writer places over his grandfather’s marriage near the start of the book, and it isn’t until the final section that we learn the truth, even if the evidence was (literally) in front of our eyes all along. Urbain Martien is a war hero, a loving son, husband and father – and yet his is a life unfulfilled, with a certain regret marring his later years.
The novel pays homage to the writer’s grandfather, of course, but it also examines the changes our world has undergone over the past century. Much of the first section follows Urbain through his early life, chronicling poverty most readers can only imagine. Hertmans evokes the smells of life in Ghent (the stench from the tannery, the ever-present coal dust, the pungent horse-droppings on every street), but also describes horrific events, such as a young man’s gruesome death in a smithy forge, or simply a vivid image of a pile of animal corpses at the gelatin factory (waiting to be made into fixing agent for upper-class ladies’ perfume…). Not everything is different, though. In the war scenes, there’s constant conflict between the Flemish-speaking soldiers and the French-speaking officers – Belgium’s schizophrenic problems haven’t got any better over the past century…
It can be hard in a time of relative calm to comprehend the carnage of the past, but in War and Turpentine Hertmans attempts to do so while also learning more about his grandfather. His journeys aren’t always successful, as the country has moved on, and some of the sites he visits have been redeveloped and lost forever. He muses:
O peace, banal, beloved, we salute thee. (p.250)
Yes, it’s easy to move on in a time of peace, but it’s also important to remember the past, both the major historical events and the people who lived through them.
Lest we forget…
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
This is an interesting one… After the first part, with its wonderful Sebaldian tone, I was pencilling it in as a contender, but once we got to the middle section, with Urbain’s reflections on the war, it lost me – not because it was bad as such, but because it was just another war story, and I’m not a huge fan of the genre. If you’re going to write about the war, you’re going to have to do a lot to justify your choice, and this was just OK.
Which is why it’s really important to always read books to the end, as the third part tipped the balance once more, returning to mysteries alluded to in the first section and rounding off the novel by completing the writer’s own portrait of his grandfather. Overall, I enjoyed War and Turpentine, even if I wasn’t overly impressed by the middle section, so my answer is an unequivocal… maybe 😉
Will it make the shortlist?
I’ll say yes. As you may have noticed above, my main reservations about the book are rather personal and reflect my own reading biases. This is very much the kind of book that you’d expect to do well, both for the MBIP literary nature of the work and the subject matter that would have done well in the old IFFP too. War and Turpentine will impress a lot of people, and I suspect the judges will be among that number.
Let’s leave the battlefields of Belgium behind and set off on the next leg of our journey, a short one, luckily enough, although the route does seem rather confused. My literary GPS mentions a French writer, but also points me in the direction of Vienna, and then on to Aleppo and Tehran. I guess modern technology isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – when it comes to finding your way, sometimes the old methods really are the best, Now, I wonder what I can use to point me in the right direction…