WAR AND TERPENTINE By Stefan Hertmans, reviewed by John Klassen (Book Review)


 John Klassen


Stefan Hertmans: War and Turpentine

Stefan Hertmans

Hertmans (1951-) is a Flemish-Belgian writer. He has published six novels, two shortstory collections, six essay books, and twelve collections of poetry. He has won a
number of literary prizes. This book was first published, in Dutch, in 2013, translated and published in English in 2016.

War and Turpentine

The descriptions in the jacket blurbs try to categorise this protean book: “A masterly
book about memory, art, love, and war...Death, destruction, obligation, duty...significant
contribution to First World War literature and a brilliant evocation of a vanished
world...at once memoir, novel, biography and confession....” All apply.

The story of Urbain Martien is contained in 600 pages of notes he left when he died in
1981. It was not until 30 years later that Hertmans read and decided to use them to tell
the story of his grandfather’s life in the first half of the 1900s.

We see Urbain as a young man who survived a Dickensian horror working in a foundry;
as the child of a lowly-church painter who loved and married a beautiful woman above
his station; a boy who grew to love art; a graduate of military school, who entered the
army on the outbreak of WWI and survived the whole war, seriously wounded three
times, each time returning to the front; post-war he married the elder sister of his one
true love who died in the flu pandemic in 1919, a marriage that lasted 40 years with
one child: a daughter who was Hertmans’ mother; as a man beset with regrets and
grief and the terrors of the war, but who found peace in life through painting and art.

Hertmans describes not only the the physical horrors of the trenches in WWI as well as
any writer, but also the total confusion, the sheer incompetence, and the disregard for
lives for personal advancement by officers. He also highlights the festering sores of
Flemish-Walloon bigotry and prejudice that have long marked Belgium history.
Hertmans articulates the deep social effects of the war and the new, dangerous
frameworks that emerged. This is his description of currents underlying a boisterous
victory parade in Brussels:

"But somewhere a gasket had blown. That much was clear to the soldiers who looked
on mutely, without joining in the cheers; the cosy intimacy of Old Europe had been
destroyed forever. The war had shot humanism full of holes, and what came rushing in
was the infernal heat of a barren moral wasteland that could hardly be sown with new
ideals, since it was abundantly clear how far the old ones had led us. The new politics
that would now flare up was fuelled by wrath, resentment, rancour, and vengefulness,
and showed even greater potential for destruction."

Like W.G. Sebald, Hartmans explores memory as held and manipulated in the mind
(“...it’s as if the scene in my imagination becomes a memory...”), how it is embodied in
events, histories, places, buildings, scenes, even weather.

Hertmans also contemplates the passage of human time against that of nature, and the
cosmos. Standing on the site of a old battlefield where thousands died, he thinks of
how, ...this remote, eerily silent place could become the setting for such horrors—it
shows once again how any logic of war is utterly opposed to every natural fact, to
ordinary time, to the usual course of things, which has no ultimate aim and retains very
little of what human beings do.

One reviewer caught an essential feature of this book. It is about the “quiddities” of a
particular life, one of billions lived on earth, but this one is given a kind of immortality
through Hertmans’ love for his grandfather and for his human foibles and desires. It is a
love expressed and explored through Hertmans’s sensitivities and lyrical prose as his
story moves back and forth through time.

What is truth? Meditating on his grandfather’s life, Hertmans concludes that:

"The Truth in life often lies buried in places we do not associate with authenticity. Life is more  

subtle, in this respect, than linear human morality. It goes to work like a painter-copyist,

using illusion to detect the truth."

A very thoughtful and thought-provoking book.


Tags: John Klassen