stefan hertmans: war and turpentine

Image © 2018 Kvocek via Shutterstock

“It was all so long ago, a century ago,” writes Stefan Hertmans in the closing pages of War and Turpentine, “I am walking here with his DNA in my body, lonelier than alone and too late for it all.”

This should not be misconstrued as an admission of failure. His book is successful at a number of levels: a touching tribute to a grandfather, a subtle sketch of a bygone era, a modern story laden with irony and self-reflection.

The narrator relates how his grandfather, at the age of ninety, and a few months before his death, hands him two notebooks. When, years later, the negligent custodian finally engages with this heirloom, he discovers the story of his grandfather’s childhood and of his experience in the trenches of World War One.

This is not a novel propelled by strong action. Rather, one could call it an emotional detective story, with the chance discovery of objects casting a new light on the grandfather’s character. “The truth in life,” writes Hertmans, “often lies buried in places we do not associate with authenticity.” A broken fob watch, a musty scarf, a hidden painting all acquire significance as Hertmans guides us through this journey into one family’s past.

Urbain, the grandfather, makes for a remarkable and memorable protagonist as we watch him develop from a sensitive boy into a taciturn old man. He is a character both strengthened by his idealism and hobbled by its naïveté. The love for his parents is sketched convincingly, as is the anguish of the senseless destruction at the front. The wounds Urbain suffers in the course of a number of actions are not just physical—but “there was no psychological counselling in those days.” The end of the war does not bring about an end to pain and loss; and Urbain turns to painting as a way of keeping his demons at bay…

I enjoyed reading the depiction of life in pre-war Flanders. Hertmans brings to life the natural beauty of that golden summer of 1914 only to describe its destruction more poignantly. His book also particularly resonated with me because it reminded me of how I gradually found out about the tragic events in my own grandfather’s wartime experience, a process of discovery that I have described in one of my short stories.

There is gentle humor in Hertmans’ prose, such as when he tries to depict his young self as his grandfather would have seen him; and his writing sings in the passages about painting. First published in Dutch in 2013, just ahead of the centenary of WWI, Hertmans’ novel shows that it is possible to write another great novel about the Great War.