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Tuesday, 5 December 2017

War and Turpentine

by Stefan Hertmans

Longlisted for the International Man Booker Prize
A New York Times Top 10 Best Book of the Year
An Economist Best Book of the Year

Longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award

“War and Turpentine” , 
The grandfather “painted” with paint, the grandson paints with metaphorical language.

Stefan Hertmans is a Flemish Belgian writer, born in Ghent in 1951.
Author of a vast literary and essayist oeuvre. His latest novel “War and Turpentine”, an internationally-acclaimed bestseller published in August 2013, is a huge success worldwide and has won numerous prizes.
“A future classic. . . . "A successful mix of memoir and fiction: novel, biography, autobiography and history, with inset essays, meditations, pictures. . . . It is his first novel to be published in English, translated from the Dutch by David McKay.
Stefan has engaged intensely in the debates following the terrorist attacks in Brussels on last 22 March and has recently written a short play “Antigone in Molenbeek” which was performed at the Amsterdam Forum recreating Europe in June 2016.

In “War and Turpentine”,  Stefan Hertmans, recounts the life of his grandfather Urbain Martien.

Some soldiers return home and are unable or unwilling to talk about their wartime experience. Others speak about little else.
The author’s grandfather, Urbain, was born in 1891, died in 1981, a forgotten war hero who told his battle stories so often that his children and grandchildren plugged their ears. Late in his life, his family bored with him - nearly 50 years after his experiences, in 1963, five years after the death of his wife, Gabrielle -, Urbain retired to a table, started to write about them and wrote some 600 pages in three notebooks, which he gave to his grandson Stefan Hertmans.
S.H. read and reread these notebooks, and he retells his grandfather’s life in his own modern voice.
Urbain died in 1981 and Hertmans didn’t look at the notebooks until nearly 30 years later, when the imminent centenary of the first world war brought back memories of his grandfather’s stories, told innumerable times to anyone who would care to listen
“War and Terpentine” is based on those notebooks, containing memoirs of the First World War, written down when he was a man of over seventy. They also contain a breathtaking account of a youth in Ghent in the industrial era before 1900, and show a boy growing up in poverty, with a father who was a fresco painter, and an awe-inspiring mother who had a deep influence on his outlook on life. He works in the iron foundry from his 13th on, enrolls in the Military Academy in 1908, and is sent to war in August 1914. What follows is a minute account of these terrible years, haunted by an ever-present reminder of the artist he had hoped to be and the soldier he was forced to become. Hence the title:“War and Turpentine”

Mr. Martien spent much of the war in the trenches. He was shot on three occasions and was returned twice to battle after recovering. 
He returned home a decorated hero. 
After the war, Urbain meets his great passion Maria Emelia,  to whom he was engaged: the smart, vivacious, beauty of his dreams. Before they could marry, she died of pneumonia during the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1919. 
It is the moment of total catastrophe to him.
A dutiful man, Mr. Martien instead married her older sister, Gabrielle, who was apparently less wonderful in every regard. But they made a long and dignified marriage, even if it was largely platonic. (Gabrielle wore a raincoat in bed to ward off Martien’s advances.)
“What must it be like, spending your whole life with your true love’s sister?” It was a torment.
From then on, he paints! And leads the life of a silent painter, copying the great painters such as Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Velazquez, and for this he had real talent.
The entire novel evolves around contradictions, repeats, parallels and especially: copies". The reason for this is grandfather's painting. Urban copies paintings. Most tragical though is the fact that he is married to the copy of his great love: he wanted to marry Maria,but got her sister Gabrielle. This tragedy stays with him his whole life!
War and Turpentine is a unique account of a disappeared but rich history of Flanders, a novel about a hidden passion, but also a novel about what war could do with the soul of a humble, fascinating man.

Urbain Martien was a man of another time. This serious and dignified book is “old-fashioned”.

In our reading group most of us appreciated the book, 2 of us had mixed feelings about it being old-fashioned. I also had this feeling.
I first read the Dutch edition, then the English translation and happily discovered the beautiful language, metaphors and acquired more understanding for this “old-fashioned man".
A book worthwhile reading twice!


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