Books of The Times: Review: ‘War and Turpentine,’ a Grandfather’s Painful Life

Books of The Times


Some soldiers return home and are unable or unwilling to talk about their wartime experience. Others speak about little else.

In the Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans’s potent new book, “War and Turpentine,” we meet a World War I veteran of the garrulous variety. This man is the author’s grandfather, Urbain Martien, a forgotten war hero who told his battle stories so often that his children and grandchildren plugged their ears.

“War and Turpentine” is billed as a novel, but that’s hardly the word for it. It’s an uncanny work of historical reconstruction. Late in his life, his family bored with him, Mr. Martien retired to a table. Writing in ballpoint with painful, gouty fingers, he began to pour his crystalline memories of the war and of his impoverished childhood in Belgium into two large notebooks, some 600 pages of manuscript.

Mr. Hertmans read and reread these notebooks, and he retells his grandfather’s life in his own modern voice. The result is a gritty yet melancholy account of war and memory and art that may remind some readers of the work of the German writer W. G. Sebald (1944-2001), who mined similar themes in books that were also literary hybrids.

The author’s grandfather, born in 1891, died in 1981. “It was as if his life,” Mr. Hertmans writes, “were no more than two digits playing leapfrog.” Between those dates a world vanished, one that is reanimated here.

This book’s centerpiece is a long section that relates Mr. Martien’s war experience in a first-person voice of his grandson’s own devising. It pivots quickly from innocence to experience, and it is harrowing.

Stefan Hertmans

Michiel Hendryckx

Mr. Martien spent much of the war in the trenches. We read of the dreamlike horror of the first German zeppelin that floats overhead, of an early German attack that was “a moving wall of metal, smoke and gunfire” and “seemed to herald the last judgment.”

Mr. Martien was shot on three occasions (groin, leg, lower back) and was returned twice to battle after recovering. He watches his fellow soldiers transform from patriotic boys to “a mob of emaciated ghouls.” Moral scruples are left behind. He sees “the physical annihilation of an old-fashioned breed of human being.”

Rats; bleeding gums; mountains of feces; diarrhea; hypothermia; untreatable infections; mustard gas; pitiless deaths of all varieties. The details of trench warfare are again laid bare, but here with special vividness.

There are moments of unholy beauty as well. When a nearby city opens the locks on its river and floods the countryside, pulsing waves of fleeing animals rush past the soldiers as they “watched with pounding hearts.”

Mr. Martien returned home a decorated hero. His war narrative is nearly enough to sustain “War and Turpentine.” But it isn’t the entirety of this story, which has windows that open in unexpected places.

There is the account of Mr. Martien’s Dickensian childhood in the Belgian port city of Ghent. His father was a poorly paid painter of frescoes in churches, who died young, partly of lead poisoning from mixing his paints. His mother went to work making clothes for a mental institution. There was never enough money or food.

At 13, Mr. Martien went to work in an iron foundry, where he witnessed grisly industrial accidents. His own back became deeply scarred and pitted from sparks that leapt from the flames. He escaped the most dismal fate, “club feet from stepping in molten iron by the furnace.”

This book includes, like the middle eight of a mournful song, a broken love story. After the war, Mr. Martien was engaged to Maria Emelia, the smart, vivacious, dark-haired beauty of his dreams. Before they could marry, she died of pneumonia during the Spanish influenza pandemic.

A dutiful man, Mr. Martien instead married her older sister, Gabrielle, a wallflower who was apparently less wonderful in every regard. But they made a long and dignified marriage, even if it was largely platonic. (Gabrielle wore a raincoat in bed to ward off Martien’s advances.)

“What must it be like, spending your whole life with your true love’s sister?” Mr. Hertmans asks. “Seeing flashes of the flamboyant Maria Emelia in the timid Gabrielle, a woman who spurned his embrace?” It was a torment.

Drifting beneath every aspect of “War and Turpentine” is Mr. Hertmans’s interest in painting, one that was handed down to him. After the war, Mr. Martien attended night classes and, following in the footsteps of his father, became a painter, albeit an amateur.

He mostly painted copies of masterpieces, and for this he had real talent. This book becomes an intellectually agile meditation on what Mr. Hertmans calls “the authentic glow that sometimes lies hidden in a copy.”

I don’t want to give away all of this book’s secrets. But as Mr. Hertmans delves more deeply into his grandfather’s paintings, he finds things in them he did not expect to find. Some of these discoveries are very moving.

Mr. Hertmans is an academic who has also written novels, poetry and plays. “War and Turpentine” is his first novel to be published in English, in this fluid translation from the Dutch by David McKay.

Mr. Hertmans’s grandfather didn’t care much for modern painters: “They muddle along with no respect for the laws of anatomy, don’t even know how to glaze, never mix their own paint, use turpentine like water and are ignorant of the secrets of grinding your own pigments, of fine linseed oil and the blowing of siccatives.”

Urbain Martien was a man of another time. This serious and dignified book is old-fashioned, too, in the pleasant sense that it seems built to last.

The article Books of The Times: Review: ‘War and Turpentine,’ a Grandfather’s Painful Life was originally published at NY Times - Energy & Environment.