War and Turpentine

Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans’ War and Turpentine has the distinction of being the only book to appear on the long lists of both the Man Booker International Prize and the Best Translated Book Award (though Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine has an MBI 2016 listing to go alongside its BTBA nomination this year). I’m tempted to say it has sneaked onto both lists, firstly because its identity as fiction is rather tenuous, and secondly because it lacks the brilliance you would expect from the only novel noticed on both sides of the Atlantic. It marks the first appearance in English of one of Hertmans’ full-length works (translated from the Dutch by David McKay), despite his writing career beginning with a novel published in 1981, the year his grandfather, Urbain (the subject of War and Turpentine) died at the age of ninety.

The novel is divided into three sections, the first of which is the most successful. Here Hertmans introduces his grandfather via childhood memories. Two central facets of his grandfather’s character, as indicated by the title, are immediately introduced: his love of painting and his experiences as a soldier during the First World War:

“My childhood years were overrun with his tales of the First World War, always the war and nothing but the war, vague heroics in a muddy field under a rain of bombs, the rat-a-tat of gunfire, phantoms screaming in the dark, orders roared in French – all conjured up from his rocking-chair with great feeling for spectacle…”

Though the war may be the focus of his conversation, Urbain spends his time painting: it is the “real work, which he had carried out uninterrupted since early retirement as a disabled veteran at forty-five.” Though these aspects of Urbain’s life are highlighted in the first few pages, the reader is intrigued by a number of mysteries: Hertmans’ memory of his grandfather “silently weeping” in front of a painting; a gravestone found hidden under the floor; and, above all, the contents of two notebooks which Urbain left Hertmans but which (at the beginning) he has not read:

“I held the privilege of his memoirs but was too scared to open them, didn’t even dare to open the first page, in the knowledge that this story would be a farewell to a piece of my childhood.”

Hertmans goes on to recreate Urbain’s life, describing how his parents met, his father’s ill-health, and the poverty they had to contend with. Urbain’s love of painting is inherited from his father who is church restorer; the young Urbain spends hours watching him at work. He, however, begins working in an iron foundry at thirteen. The story is told in what might be described as a Sebaldian style (or sub-Sebaldian if we were being less kind) meandering from the present to the past as Hermans describes his researches (for example, a visit to the National Gallery in London to see Velazquez’s Venus at her Mirror, a painting his grandfather has copied) and interrupted with the occasional photograph.

Part II brings an abrupt change of style as it focuses entirely on Urbain’s war years and is written in the first person. (It’s not entirely clear if it is lifted verbatim from his notebooks, though more likely it has been adapted from them). This creates a perfectly readable and interesting narrative, albeit one which adds little to our understanding of soldiers’ experiences during the war (apart, perhaps, from internal Belgian tensions between French and Flemish speakers – though these seem similar to divisions within the Austro-Hungarian army).

The third and final section is the shortest, returning us to the style of the first. However, with most of Urbain’s life still to be lived, this makes the novel appear lop-sided – as if, now that his childhood and war have been described, there is little of interest left. Hertmans relies instead on some very literary techniques – the symbolism of a pocket watch, and the reveal of the painting which made his grandfather cry. In the end, given Urbain’s bravery during the war (seriously wounded three times) and aptitude for art, we have a portrait of an extraordinary man living a very ordinary life. For some this is a reason for rejoicing (see also Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life) but I feel, instead, despair at a life stunted by lack of opportunity. (It also, as with Seethaler’s novel, contains amore personal tragedy).

Though War and Turpentine features on two long lists, I would not be surprised if it made neither short list. Despite holding the reader’s interest throughout, it’s ultimately an imbalanced work, never quite the sum of its parts.

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12 Responses to “War and Turpentine”

  1. The Man Booker International Prize 2017 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel), translated by Jessica Cohen and published by Jonathan Cape War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), translated by David McKay and published by Harvill Secker The Unseen […]

  2. tonymess12 Says:

    Totally agree with all you’ve written, for me the most disappointing work on the Man Booker International Prize longlist and I am completely baffled by the inclusion on the BTBA, which is an award generally more eclectic than the MBIP (or old IFFP).

  3. Caroline Says:

    I’m glad you’re not as enthusiastic as some other reviewers that saves me another addition to my piles. And I can see why. I would mind it feeling lop- sided.

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s far from the worst book I’ve read on a prize list – but I wouldn’t say it was a ‘must-read’, more one to pick up if the topic and approach sound interesting to you.

  4. Man Booker International Prize 2017 Longlist | Messenger's Booker (and more) Says:

    […] 1st Reading review […]

  5. bookbii Says:

    Interesting. There are elements of this book which are extremely appealing to me, but the patchiness of result is offputting. I wonder if it is one of those books that get under your skin, linger, without having any seeming initial impact, but perhaps you can tell me if that’s the case in a week or so!

    • 1streading Says:

      If it sounds appealing I would read it – my criticisms may be more in relation to the book I wanted it to be. I can’t say it has become more memorable in retrospect, however, though I know exactly what you mean.

  6. A Little Blog of Books Says:

    I agree that the structure is uneven but I still enjoyed it a lot – although this was probably because I was relieved to read something more conventional after tackling Bricks and Mortar!

  7. JacquiWine Says:

    Hmm, it does sound somewhat problematic. Probably not a book for me, especially given your comparison with the Seethaler. Did the MBIP judges say why they had selected this book for the longlist?

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