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“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.
Gilbert Delcon with his sister Georgette, Bonheiden ca. 1951.
To name your child after another person means to set up a connection from birth. To name your child after a loved one who perished under dramatic circumstances raises the stakes considerably. I was such a child, named after an uncle who died in 1952, a year before I was born. All through my childhood, Uncle Gilbert stared back at me from framed photographs at my grandparents’ place. Standing in the Texas desert, sitting in the cockpit of his training aircraft – always with his kind, dimpled smile. As I grew up, the family resemblances became more pronounced. But unlike Dorian Gray’s, his picture stayed the same as my face developed wrinkles and grooves – a small price to pay for the privilege of ageing.
I knew the stories, of course. As a young boy in World War II, Gilbert refused to seek shelter when the air raid sirens went off over Bonheiden, a small village in Flanders. Much to his parents’ frustration, he ran outside to watch the Allied formations pass over on their way to Germany. He was enthralled with Spitfires in particular, captivated by the elegance of their design. One day, he resolved, he would be flying a Spitfire, and that would be the best day of his life. Continue reading