War and Turpentine by Stefan Hermans

01/07/16, The Guardian

Urbain Martien was born in 1891 to a poor, working-class family in Ghent. His father, Franciscus, was a lowly painter of church murals and frescoes and died of tuberculosis in his early forties, but not before he had passed on a passion for painting to his son. At the centre of Urbain’s life was his statuesque, self-possessed mother, Céline, whom he loved madly. He worked in an iron foundry as a boy before going to military school for four years. Shortly after he graduated, the Great War arrived, sweeping away the old order of Europe like a giant hand. Urbain served on the frontline, miraculously surviving it. Not only was the world he returned to after the end of the war utterly transformed but he was, too. Nearly fifty years after his experiences, in 1963, five years after the death of his wife, Gabrielle, he started to write of them and filled up over six hundred pages in three notebooks, which he bequeathed to his grandson Stefan Hertmans, one of the great living Flemish poets. Urbain died in 1981 and Hertmans didn’t look at the notebooks until nearly thirty years later, when the imminent centenary of the Great War brought back memories of his grandfather’s stories of his war years, told innumerable times to anyone who would care to listen. War and Turpentine is the astonishing result of Hertmans’ reckoning with his grandfather’s diaries. It is a book that lies at the crossroads of novel, biography, autobiography, history, with inset essays, meditations, pictures, a book that seems to be aching to be called ‘Sebaldian’ and, in this instance, earning the epithet glowingly.

The book is divided into three unequal sections, the longest one, the central, comprising Urbain’s experiences in the Great War, but we are led up to it through the first part, a masterly evocation of the life of the European provincial poor, a world lost to us irrevocably. Hertmans himself is a character, or voice, in this section, telling us about his memories of Urbain, of tussling with the notebooks and how to confront ‘the painful truth behind any literary work: I first had to recover from the authentic story, to let it go, before I could rediscover it in my own way.’ He visits the places – some changed beyond recognition, some no longer extant – of his grandfather’s childhood years and intensely imagines life as it must have been for Urbain a century ago. There are beautiful pages on Urbain’s father going about his craft, watched by his son; a stomach-churning section on Urbain’s visit to a gelatine factory; a Dickensian account of the dangerous work in the iron foundry. These set pieces, studded like jewels along the garland of the narrative, shed the light necessary to illuminate a lost world. Through all this, Hertmans’ own musings on the commute between the present and the past provide the thread on which the jewels are strung.

In section two, the heart of the book, Hertmans removes himself, the ‘I’ narrator now becoming Urbain, and we get an unflinching first-hand report of the war years from the frontline. Narratives of the Great War from people who saw action are not exactly thin on the ground but even with such bristling competition it is undeniable that these ninety pages are some of the most distilled expression of unremitting horror. Urbain is wounded grievously three times but even in the middle of the hell of death, disease, mud, diarrhoea and ever-present danger, he notes Nature with exquisite precision: ‘The earth warms up; after the chilly morning hours, vapour rises from the miry fields, which shine in the strange light. A blanket of lapwings ripples over the horizon …’. Five lines later, he is talking about the pervasive presence of rats: ‘Sometimes we roast them, but their flesh is vile, muddy and gooey. A commander roars that we’ll catch the plague.’ In David McKay’s dazzlingly lyrical translation from the Dutch, every detail has the heightened luminosity of a line of poetry, from the first sight of a Zeppelin (‘this dream-fish drifting silently over our heads’) to a dead horse hanging from a broken elm (‘perfectly straight, its bloody, half-severed head gruesomely twisted against the cool morning sky, its legs tangled in the remains of the tree like strange branches’).

In the final section, Hertmans reappears – and Urbain again becomes the third-person pronoun – to narrate the remainder (the greater half: over sixty years) of Urbain’s postwar life. There is a sad secret at the heart of his loveless marriage to Gabrielle that it wouldn’t do to give away; it provides much of the pathos to this heartbreaking section. The only consolation left to Urbain in this long tail of his life appears to have been painting and Hertmans writes about this aspect of his grandfather’s life with both passion and delicacy. The book has such convincing density of detail, with the quiddities of a particular life so truthfully rendered, that I was reminded of a phrase from Middlemarch: ‘an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects’; Hertmans’ achievement in the book is exactly that.

Urbain considered himself and his life ordinary. Over twenty years after his death, he has been given a kind of immortality by his grandson, an extraordinary afterlife that Urbain could never have imagined. War an Turpentine has all the markings of a future classic.