“Il ne se passe toujours rien au front belge.”
Shortly before his death in 1981, Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather gave him a couple of filled exercise books. Stories he’d heard as a child had led Hertmans to suspect that their contents might be disturbing, and for years he didn’t dare to open them.
When he finally did, he discovered unexpected secrets. His grandfather’s life was marked by years of childhood poverty in late-nineteenth-century Belgium, by horrific experiences on the frontlines during the First World War and by the loss of the young love of his life. He sublimated his grief in the silence of painting.
Drawing on these diary entries, his childhood memories and the stories told within Urbain’s paintings, Hertmans has produced a poetic novelisation of his grandfather’s story, brought to life with great imaginative power and vivid detail.
War and Turpentine is an enthralling search for a life that coincided with the tragedy of a century—and a posthumous, almost mythical attempt to give that life a voice at last.
My own grand-father died a year and a half ago. It’s weird how fast you forget the sound of someone’s voice while other memories remain, crystal clear.
My grand-father was always telling stories, in his last years the stories were always the same ones, repeated in an endless loop.
Urbain reminded me of my “opa”. He never served in the war however, he was too young, but I do remember one story where he fell into a shell crater while playing with some friends. He was six when the second World War started.
The main chunk of this book consists of Urbain’s life outside of the war. How he grew up in poverty, what that meant exactly and how that shaped him as a person. It shows Belgium as it was in the late 1900s, new industries arose, the new century peeking round the corner.
I learned a lot from these chapters. The writing is vivid and the amount of detail makes it easy to imagine how everything must have looked, smelled, sounded. It also helps that I know a lot of the places Stefan writes about. I went to school in Ghent, so I walked through the city in my mind while I was reading.
Urbain grew up in difficult circumstances.
And then the war came.
No one knew what was going on. Suddenly, there’s an enemy. Cities are reduced to rubble. Civilians are slaughtered en masse. German troops advanced at an alarming speed. The Belgians are pushed back, back, back all the way to the coast. The superiors shout orders in French that the Flemish soldiers don’t understand. It must have been mayhem. And in this book, I finally see it. Truth, told by someone who was there. How he saw his friends die, how they didn’t want to fight, how the lieutenants would get their men drunk before sending them to their deaths. Death and destruction everywhere.
I followed his journey through the country, East to West until he ended up near the town where I grew up. It’s weird, seeing those names on the page.
And it hurts, knowing that a lot of the boys that died there.. are still there. Most of them were younger than I am now. That’s why I will always continue to read about the war. To remember them.
“I mean, they say you die twice.
One time when you stop breathing and a second time,
a bit later on,
when somebody says your name for the last time.”
(That one’s Banksy, or Macklemore, whichever you prefer..)
This book is brutally honest and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve read too many books about the wars where they romanticize what happened.
Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.
I don’t know a lot of Latin but I know this.
Every year, I watch the memorial in Ypres.
And every year I cry.
Because it’s a damn shame that so many young people died only for us to forget and repeat those stupidities time and time again.
War and Turpentine was Longlisted for the International Man Booker Prize 2017.