A surprise novel of immense depth, Stefan Hertmans’ War and Turpentine is Proustian in its evocation of both memory itself and of a writer’s ability to keep it alive, or, in Proust’s word, regained.  A man living in our own times finds two longish diaries written by his own grandfather, along with a number of sketches, sketchbooks and a number of oil paintings.  His grandfather, as an older/old man, seemed gentle and somewhat eccentric to the young narrator, who remembers him painting much of the day, and that he had been a veteran in World War I.  Since the protagonists live in Belgium, we need to remember up front that those nightmarish trenches of WWI were mainly in Belgium; the so-called Western Front of The Great War extended westward into France, near Rheims, as I recall, but the Belgians had the worst of it.

The writer/narrator decides to do a truly close reading of his grandfather’s writings, and an equally close analysis of his paintings, with the most remarkable of results: he makes his grandfather into a fully human man, focusing mainly on his younger years, those leading up to his entrance into the War, the war years themselves, and his retreat, if you will, back into his home, where he marries, yet remains on physical disability while he mainly paints for the rest of his life.  It’s so easy to write people off with such simple facts, but Hertmans is determined to go into real depth, not particularly looking for family secrets, though finding some (and admiring the way they remained secrets when those bearing them were alive). I can’t remember a better description of life in the armed services in WWI in those trenches, because of the specificity of the details that Hertmans gleans from those diaries.  His grandfather was indeed a hero, but when, nearer the end of this novel, the writer goes back to see those Flanders fields where his grandfather fought, he is appalled at the blandness of suburban Belgian cities, where not a trace of the original landscapes exists any more, and where war memorials seem almost in the way of contemporary suburban existence. Those juxtapositions between the war years and contemporary life are very powerful, as the author picks up the passions of the soldiers, and of the times in which they lived, from those diaries.  The narrator finds those contemporary fields, if you will, as deadening as the dead in the ground beneath him.  And those same diaries document a new brutality coming from enemy lines, from Germans who may be said to have been the first in Western history to deliberately target civilians in their rampage through Europe.  And the tensions between the French and Flemish speaking soldiers is finely detailed; if you wonder, ever, whatever happened to Flanders and the Flemish, it’s another story of a class war between the French speaking upper and upper middle classes, and those on the lower rungs of society whose language and customs were Flemish (the Walloons). The French speaking officer corps take great risks with the lives of the “lower orders”, if you will, reminding us of how little has changed in sending the poorer people off to fight the wars created by the rich. (I thus learned why two of my own great uncles, who came from Belgium, were so keen on everyone knowing that they spoke French).

Analyzing and studying his grandfather’s paintings is a different but equally fascinating study in how observant people can learn so much about others if they take the time to look.  The narrator will discover that his grandfather’s great love died in the influenza epidemic which followed WWI and that he felt duty bound to marry her sister, for example, through clues left in the sketches and paintings.  The grandfather’s own father was a restorer of church paintings and frescoes, and a high moment in the novel occurs when the grandfather and the grandson both find a small church where the great-grandfather touched up many a church painting.  Those religious and spiritual touches help make this novel grow from the mundane, the daily, into the transcendent.  This talent for art runs through this side of this family, and it’s a beautiful way to link the generations.

Hertmans’ accomplishment is that much greater in the noisy world of quick images and social media claptrap in which we find ourselves today.  This novel aims for the highest purposes and reaches of what literature can be and can accomplish; it calls for a slow reading, and the writing itself is superb; you’ll find yourself often amazed by his narrative prose, which veers into the lyrical and/or poetic as this writer takes one life and lets it become transcendent, transformative, so that we, too, understand that not only the big guys need end up as history’s star players.  That’s a major theme of this magnificent novel, not so much that every life matters equally, but that every life examined well has its dignities and passions and memories worth preserving and passing on.

–Daniel Brown

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *