War and Turpentine

Written by David McKay (trans.) Stefan Hertmans
Review by Douglas Kemp

Classified as fiction, this fascinating book seems to be a hybrid of memoir, biography and fiction. The author’s subject is his grandfather, Urbain Martien (1891-1981), whose family lived in the Belgian city of Ghent as Catholics and on his death bequeathed to his grandson notebooks of his memoirs. These were apparently left for thirty years unread by the writer, who then decided that he needed to examine this unique legacy as the 100th anniversary of the First World War approached – because the memoirs dealt with his grandfather’s dreadful experiences in the war.

The book is not a straightforward narrative. It moves around to gain impressions, reflecting upon the very essence of memory, the past, reality and family relations. The author tries to reconstruct the past after the notebooks end, to use his and his family’s memories to assemble a coherent account of his grandfather’s life.  It is highly readable and intelligent, thought-provoking and moving, as Hertmans uncovers a version of the unrecoverable past. The book also deals with how life and society change – how, in this transitory world, the landscape alters and buildings and people are lost, gone forever.

His grandfather was a precise, often difficult and stubborn man. He spent the latter years of his life, as a widower, making copies of famous paintings, and also suffered from psychiatric problems. The core of the book are the war years from 1914 to 1918, which saw Urbain, who had trained as a soldier and was thus immediately called up, wounded three times. As with all who participated in these horrors, the experiences shaped his subsequent life and stayed with him at all times. This part is narrated in the first person present tense, by the writer’s grandfather, and is presumably an amalgam of his memoirs and fiction. It is a visceral, intimate and horrific account of the horrors of the war. This is simply a magnificent book.