Saturday, July 23, 2016

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

The "battle between the transcendent" and the "memory of death and destruction" is eloquently shared through the life of Urbain Martien, the author's grandfather, in War and Turpentine, a book called a "future classic" by the Guardian.

Thirty years after inheriting his grandfather's papers Stefan Hertmans finally read the memoirs. Urbain's early life in poverty drove him into the Ghent steel mills as a teenager. Then came the sudden epiphany that he, like his father who restored church murals, must be an artist. Urbain joins the Flemish Military Academy and is called up to service and into the horror of The Great War.

"How far I have strayed from what I once hoped to become."

Germany wanted a quick route to Paris, and neutral Belgium was in the way. When Belgium resisted, the German army invaded, murdering whole villages. The Rape of Belgium left 6,000 civilians dead, 1.5 million refugees, and 120,000 civilians used as forced labor. The military lost 100,000 or more dead.

Hertmans' retelling of his grandfather's story is in three sections: the author's personal memories and his grandfather's early life; the brutal war years; the post-war years as Urbain cobbles together a life. The war section, for me, was most powerful with its vivid descriptions of death and suffering, the piles of human waste in the trenches, Urbain's honorable bravery and multiple injuries, the absurd carnage of human lives.
                       "We're all cannon fodder together."
And yet there are moments when Urbain sees nature's beauty, the artist's eye still seeking out the inspiration of color and form and association.

After the war Urbain cobbles together a life: love, loss, and loneliness; the frailty of the body; and the accomplishment of one great original painting.
"What mattered most to him was something he could not share with others. So he painted trees, clouds, peacocks, the Ostend beach, a poultry yard, still lifes on half-cleared tables--an immense, silent, devoted labour of grief, to put the world's weeping to rest in the most everyday things. He never painted a single war scene."
The novel is an international best seller.

I received a free ebook through Penguin First to Read in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

War and Turpentine
Stefan Hertmans