‘War and Turpentine’ by Stefan Hertmans

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★★★

Hertman’s grandfather was always telling his daughter and grandchildren about his war experiences, and reminiscing about a childhood long gone with his siblings. But in many ways Grandfather Urbain refrained from telling others about his inner life. Instead he expressed his memories, regrets, sorrows and joys through art: Hertmans grandfather spent the last decades of his life reproducing and copying great artworks (which he excelled at) and writing (unbeknownst to his family) his memories. War and Turpentine is Hertman’s exploration of these memoirs and into his grandfather’s paintings – a detective story to figure out the inner workings of a dead man’s mind. Part reflection on WW1 from a 21th century perspective, part rewriting old memoirs into modern language, part an account of genealogical research and part a novel, this book defies all genre-conventions.

His grand passions were treetops, clouds and folds in fabric. In these formless forms he could let go, lose himself in a dream world of light and dark, in clouds congealed in oil paint, chiaroscuro, a world where nobody else could intrude, because something – it was hard to say what – had broken inside him.

Urbain grew up in a working class family in Ghent. His mother came from relatively affluent people and was educated, but his father was a poor and sickly church painter whom Urbain’s mother fell passionately in love with. Born in 1890, Urbain was a child before modern childhood was invented, and he had to start earning a vage in his early teens. Particularly after his father’s premature death, the large family came to rely on Urbain as a bread winner. But the boy always dreamed about being an artist and a better life for himself, although he had no idea how to accomplish this. Urbain’s childhood sounds absolutely Dickensian with its poverty, tragedy and romance, but it is absolutely true!

And that is not the only part of Urbain’s story that sounds incredible (in the true sense of the word): after WW1, Urbain met and fell in love with the stunningly beautiful and intelligent Maria Emilia. Tragically, she died of consumption before they could be married. He then married Maria’s older, homely sister, who clearly was not happy about living in her dead sister’s shadow and went to bed in a raincoat for the rest of her life so as to not give her husband any ideas. However, despite Urbain’s life long grief for Maria Emilia and his wife’s resentment of this fact, the two had a dignified and caring marriage.

How Urbain’s peculiar marriage worked and how the man’s childhood shaped him is one of the many questions Hartman explores in this book. He also tries to understand how the story of Belgium shaped the history of his own family and who Urbain and Hertman became as men. For instance, Urbain grew in a time when Flemish speakers were seriously discriminated against by the French speaking elite (which leads some bizarre conflicts between the French officers and Flemish infantry men in the trenches), Hertman has lived through a time of peace, whilst Urbain had to survive two wars that absolutely devastated his country as well as his mind and body. Perhaps I became particularly interested in this story because I wm currently living in Belgium, but I do not think so. No matter where you come from, you did not spring out from nowhere – you have ancestors and they where part of history one way or another, so understanding your family’s past, understanding history is to know how you came into being.

The mid part of the book contains the memoirs Urbain left behind him, about the outbreak of the war, the invasion of Belgium, trench life and hospitalization in Britain. Hertman has ‘translated’ the texts into modern parlance so as to make them more understandable and enjoyable to our 21th century minds. But I do not know how successful this retelling actually is. Frankly, I did not enjoy this second part of the book as much as a liked the first and the third. It all felt a bit stale and trodding. But then that could perhaps just be due to me being used to a structured plot, when of course real life does not work that way.

I came across this book in the fiction section of Waterstones, but this is not a novel. Sure, there are parts in which the author clearly has taken some liberties (like his imagining of how his great-grandmother was pulled out of intense grief for her husband by watching two crows fighting) and, yes, this is a narrative, but what piece of non-fiction is not narrated? What account does not have imaging and speculation as part of it?

Hertman paints as well with words as his grandfather did with his brush. War and Turpentine beautifully captures that feeling that anyone interested in family history, or history in general, feels – of being part of a long chain of generations connecting us to a past, a world long gone that we can never quite capture and struggle to imagine. Hartman does what he can, with the help of his grandfather’s notes, trips to various places he lived, to make that distant world come alive with its sounds, smells and social rules. I really enjoyed it and sincerely hope more of this writer’s works are translated into English.

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