War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

 

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

Belgian fiction

Original title – Oorlog en terpentijn

Translator- David Mckay

Source – review copy

Stefan Hertmans is a poet , novelist and short story writer . He has won a number of prizes including the AKO prize for this book. this is the next stop on the man booker list this is the one I felt would be on the liust as it was frequently compared to Sebald when it came out, which in a way made me get to it later in the list in case I was disappointed by it , which I wasn’t that it was very Sebald like (it isn’t really yes it has pictures and place and memories but in another context it isn’t Sebald work mainly dealt with the outfall of world war two ).

Strange as it may seem, there were details of my own world that never offered up their historical secrets until I read his memoirs: a gold pocket watch shattering on the tile floor ; an oval cigarette from a silver case , smoked in secret, which made me nauseous when I was fifteen years old ; a worn reddish-brown scarf on the discard cupboards in the dilapidated greenhouses, covered within droplets of the disoriented blackbirds that would throw themselves against the glass in panic .

Images of his youth come to life in his grandfathers notebooks

 

The story goes Urbain wrote these notebooks and he died in the sixties the son of a painter also called Urbaine were passed to his grand son Stefan the writer but he left them for thirty year what follows is his story of reading them. The first part of the story is pre world war one father and son in a the city og Ghent  just getting by making ends meet painting small fresco in churches around the town , a one point the son takes a job in gelatine factory , remind me of the time we see David Copperfield an artist in the making in the bottle factory another dangerous job .Now unlike Dickens in Urbaine case the war sends his life in another direction the most of the book is the grandfathers notebooks of his war experiences , very much like most war accounts of the tome we have a real feel of Mud , the trenches , rats and death in the air all around them. A break comes when he is sent to Liverpool to recover and paints the sea and places round Wallasey (I found an ironic connection to Hitler , here who many years earlier was in the same city painting ) The last part is post war a love story.

As soon as my health and the weather permitted I went out searching .Maud was right:in St James Street I found the church of St Vincent de Paul. My heart was pounding as I entered its damp , sparsely decorated interior. On the dingy walls to the left, there was no sign of any murals my father might have worked on. On the right , I found the stations of the cross on panels .there happened to be men at work in the church , whitewashing walls. They couldn’t recall any frescos under the whitewash.

Urbain tries to find a fresco his father did in Liverpool was he recovers

Now the book is littered with pictures the start that inspired father and son , the buildings of Ghent . Then in the war years the only picture we see is the one of Urbaine in his uniform at the end of the war a man with that thousand yard stare of someone who has seen death in the eye. This is slightly like Sebald , even in the last part of the book there is a quote from Vertigo .  The nearest english novel would be Siegfried  Sassoon cycle of books The Sherston trilogy , which follows a mans pre war and post war and war-time journey like this novel does . Hertmans manages to capture the madness brutality and darkness of the first world war.  I enjoyed this book it is destined to be a modern classic.

May 2017
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