Although my edition of War and Turpentine is published by Text Publishing right here in Melbourne, its release had somehow passed me by and it was listening to a Radio National interview with its Flemish author Stefan Hertmans which piqued my interest in the book. As the author, explaining his delay in dealing with his grandfather’s memoirs, says himself…
the hundredth anniversary of the cataclysm would release a flood of books – a new barrage alongside the almost unscaleable mountain of existing historical material, books as innumerable as the sandbags on the Yser front, thoroughly documented, historically accurate, made-up novels and stories. […] If I didn’t hurry, it would be published when readers turned away with a yawn from yet another book on the First World War. (p.11)
Too true. Already in 2016 there is a sense of embarrassed fatigue about the anniversary flood, and there are two years to go. Yet I was entranced by this book, and not just because it appeals to my love of art. It’s also a book that traces the tragedy of the 20th century, a century which destroyed all the old certainties.
Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain was an amateur artist, mostly self-taught because he grew up in a kind of Dickensian poverty that we cannot imagine now. From Urbain’s memoirs the author learns that his grandparents’ marriage met with disapproval because of class differences: his father was a painter who died young, probably from ingesting toxic paints as he restored art works in churches, while his mother Celine was estranged from the good family that might have helped them. So Urbain’s childhood was spent scrounging food and coal to keep the fire burning and he missed a lot of school, discovering instead that he had a talent for drawing though it didn’t save him from soul-destroying and dangerous work in a foundry. This part of the book is familiar and yet a revelation: we in Australia know that enlistment in WW1 also offered some of our young men an escape from drudgery or unemployment, yet Urbain’s childhood story reveals the origins of an integrity that seems to have vanished. You see traces of this lost world of grinding poverty and hardship and an idealised value system which is long gone in Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet too; it is worth being reminded about it, I think, because although the men of that generation are gone now, the loss of those values scars the men and women who are still with us, though they are very old now.
Urbain’s war is also familiar and yet different: in all the flood of words about WW1 we have not heard the voices of the Flemish people over whose land the battles raged. John McCrae’s famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ was penned by a Canadian in 1915. Urbain’s memoirs reveal a different kind of pain, showing us not just the devastation of his homeland but also the tragic realisation that the rules of war that he had learned in military college did not apply in this new savagery:
My knapsack was encrusted with mud and dirt; we rinsed off our things at a deserted farmhouse. I found my drawing materials, which I had almost forgotten – charcoal and a pencil. The few sheets of paper I had brought from home were full of mud stains. With a painful lump in my throat, I sat down by a stump and drew the devastated landscape, the piles of debris, the shell craters, the bodies, the blasted stumps, the dead horse I had seen hanging from a broken elm, perfectly straight, its bloody half-severed head gruesomely twisted against the cool morning sky, its legs tangled in the remains of the tree like strange branches. Under its torn, stinking belly crawling with flies, a few boards from a splintered cart still hung from a length of rope. I thought back to the calm, soothing sound of my father’s hands brushing over the paper as he sketched in the peace and quiet of a distant Sunday afternoon, and my eyes were full of tears, so bloody hot and full that I crumpled the paper into a ball, chucked it away, and cursed. (p.152)
When he hears that the fall of Ghent is near, (p.175) fear grips [his] heart when he thinks of his mother there. He has heard about the atrocities from refugees:
Frantic refugees told us that the Germans had subjected the people of Aarschot to still more reprisals, in the form of summary executions. They would round up the entire population of a village chosen at random, make the trembling men line up in rows, announce that they had calculated the resistance to be one-third, shoot one in three men in the neck, and force the women and children to haul away and bury the corpses of their husbands and fathers. Women who lost control of themselves were beaten to death with a rifle barrel as their children clung to their skirts. The atrocities in Wallonia were said to be even larger in scale; as evidence one man showed us a sickly-smelling cap with his brother’s brains still cleaving to the inside. (p. 153).
In the aftermath of this dreadful war, Urbain meets the love of his life, but loses her to the Spanish flu, a catastrophe which killed more people than the war did, (its casualties including one of my son’s ancestors here in Victoria, a man who had survived the war only to die on his return). The author’s detective work amongst his grandfather’s artworks reveals Urbain’s long-held grief about this, shedding light on Urbain’s relationship with his subsequent wife. It’s poignant to read, yet one can’t but admire the stoicism with which this man bore his travails.
As you can see from the excerpts quoted above, this novelised memoir does not flinch from the brutality of the subject matter. But the war years are not the main focus of the book: not quite 100 pages in a book of almost 300 pages, and some of that is about when he was recuperating from wounds in England. War and Turpentine is not a war book as such, it is about a man who represents a generation and while it is intensely personal in tone, it has a universal significance.
Author: Stefan Hertmans
Title: War and Turpentine (Oorlog en terpentijin)
Translated from the Dutch by David McKay
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016 (first published 2013)
Source: Kingston Library
Available from Fishpond: War and Turpentine and good bookshops everywhere.