An ode to a life and a lost generation: War and Turpentine

Modern Traveller falls in love with the English translation of Stefan Hertmans’ majestic masterpiece, War and Turpentine, on the road in Belgium.

Reading in translation carries its risks. Any writer will have chosen their words with the utmost care – particularly one such as the poet Stefan Hertmans. Capturing the essence of what a piece of work is trying to say, in another language, with its own potent symbols and layers of meaning, its own complex turns of phrase, must be near-impossible. David McKay’s translation of Hertmans’ War and Turpentine, however, does so exquisitely.

Ambling along the cobbles of Ghent and Bruges, Hertmans’ novel tucked into my little backpack to be extracted and perused in charming cafés and along picturesque waterways, I found myself entranced. The poet’s words and those of his grandfather — at once poignant, melancholic, ponderous — profoundly shaped my impression of Belgium; I shall remain unable to reflect upon one without the other.

In his vivid, masterly work, Hertmans intertwines his own childhood memories with those of his grandfather, Urbain Martien, through extracts from Martien’s diaries.

Gifted to his grandson upon his death at the age of ninety, Martien’s memoirs reveal layer upon layer of secrets: from a childhood of hardship to the terror of the trenches of the First World War; a great love lost to a life detailed in pigment and canvas. It has taken Hertmans almost thirty years, and the impetus of the hundred year anniversary of the First World War, to make something of these precious recollections.

Written in his final years, as his eyesight grew weak and his hands shook, Martien’s experiences of the First World War are by no means unique in our global archive of accumulated memoirs, letters and journals. The magic behind War and Turpentine is two-fold.

Firstly, Martien’s words were written decades after the events which shaped his life actually occurred. His memory is sharp; he is able to distil those formative experiences and to illustrate the extent of the lasting horror of the Great War upon an entire generation of young men.

Secondly, Hertmans’ lyrical prose weaves past and present effortlessly together — from retracing his grandfather’s footsteps in the fields of Flanders, to recollections of melon ice cream and bookshop visits with Urbain as a boy.

War and Turpentine is honest — sometimes painfully so. Urbain Martien was born into poverty on the cusp of the twentieth century; his father Franciscus a painter of frescoes, his mother, Céline, a striking, black-haired symbol of resilience – one which stayed with him throughout his life.

The first third of the book charts his early, tragic life. Working in an iron foundry from the age of thirteen, he received his military training and served in the Belgian Army from 1914: frustrated again and again by the discrimination which he recalls facing as a result of his Flemish heritage; undertaking dangerous missions, badly wounded and sent – twice – to England to recover.

Hertmans graciously steps back from the second and central section of the book, in which we are thrust into the terrifying torment of the trenches through Urbain’s brave and fearful first person narrative.

The third section, perhaps the most poignant, interweaves Hertmans’ own memories with his present discoveries of his grandfather’s past, revealing the mysteries behind his brushstrokes as a series of surprises and revisiting the sites of Urbain’s memories: charting the hidden intricacies of a life in which the madness of war was exchanged for the quiet contemplation of turpentine.

To say more would be to reveal too much. Urbain’s secrets are his, and his grandson’s, to tell. Suffice it to say that War and Turpentine, at once memoir, novel, biography and confession, is a masterpiece.

Hertmans tells his grandfather’s tale, and his own, with absolute grace. An ode to a lost generation, forever haunted by a war which shattered and shaped their lives, told through the experiences of one ordinary man: soldier, painter and so much more. This is a profound reflection upon the human condition which will remain with you long after you have turned the final page.

Hertmans has succeeded in giving an ordinary hero, his extraordinary hero, eternal life in the world of words. What more of a legacy could one possibly ask for?

Stefan Hertmans’ War and Turpentine was originally published in Dutch in 2014. David McKay’s English translation is published by Harvill Secker, London (2016).


WORDS BY SASKIA WALKER

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