Review:  Stefan Hertmans’ War and Turpentine

The center of Stefan Hertmans’ magnificent novel, War and Turpentine, is a harrowing first-person account of the Great War, with bookended sections of third- person narration related by the soldier’s grandson. This combination of narrators is an altogether clever ploy, resulting in insights for both characters, especially because of the sweep of time and historical change. The second noun of the title refers to Urbain Joseph Emile Martien, an amateur painter’s use of turpentine in his work, and his obsession as a copyist of Renaissance painters. There’s an inherited quality to his avocation because his father was not only a painter of churches but also someone who touched up icons and occasionally painted a religious scene of his own inspiration. So it’s really war and art that are the focus of this extraordinary novel, with the added caveat that War and Turpentine may be more fact than fiction, a novel that appears to draw directly upon Hertmans’ own Flemish lineage.

Urbain had had four years of actual military training before the start of World War I. Recruits are conscripted when the war begins, given virtually no training after being handed a rifle. Urbain is different, however, because of his earlier training. And he repeats what he has heard—something said so often at the beginning of wars: “Our officers have assured us that we shall be home again before winter sets in.” That’s what they hear in August 1914. Then the total drudgery and boredom begins as the recruits are marched for days on end, initially to a town known as Dendermonde. Once actual fighting begins—still August—their troop is reduced by fifty percent. Soon, there are no warturprations, dirty drinking water that makes them sick, the stench of excrement everywhere, plus exhaustion and demoralization. Later, this is Urbain’s observation: “We wore boots found on farms, the shoes of dead Germans, knapsacks of knotted rags. We were a mud-splattered bunch of battle-numbed saps, groaning, and grousing our way to the unthinkable, plodding down mucky roads under low clouds of our rain-lashed country.”

Slowly, they are defeated by the Germans, who are described as no longer having “moral scruples.” This observation is made as a crying child on the opposite bank of a river is used as a decoy. When one of their troop jumps into the water to rescue the boy, the Germans who have been waiting open fire and kill their companion. “This kind of psychological warfare was new to us. We had been taught a strict code of military honor, ethics, and warcraft. We had learned to fence skillfully, to conduct rescue drills, and to think about the honor of our country’s soldiers. What we saw here had nothing to do with all that. It stirred up our thoughts and emotions; we sensed, with fear in our hearts, that we were becoming different men, ready and willing to do all the things we’d once abhorred.”

Urbain is wounded three times, on each occasion sent to a hospital in England for rehabilitation. The first time he is sent back into the arena, he describes the move as “back to hell.” The deplorable conditions continue: rats, diarrhea,  “whole weeks when nothing happens.” Always, when he has a free moment, Urbain takes out paper and sketches what he sees. These drawings had begun much earlier when he temporarily took a few classes for instruction, but mostly he is self-taught—pretty much like his father. The third time he is sent back to fight (spring 1918) he comments on his situation once again: “The mosquitoes, hornets, and infections return; in a dead-end sap trench, a mountain of excrement lies stinking to high heaven; when we try to bury it, we keep digging up corpses, severed limbs, and shrapnel. So we leave the whole mess as it is and slink off, gagging.”

And then the war is over. His grandson continues the narration in the third person, describing his grandfather’s marriage, his obsession with copying Renaissance paintings, his work until the end of his life. Mostly, this third section of the “novel,” and the first one, are a love-song the grandson relates of his grandfather, the bonding between them, and the discovery of the man’s war journals (the focus of the first-person narrative in the middle of the book). The text is interleafed with photos of the paintings his grandfather makes, with a section of credits at the end of the book, identifying the paintings the man copied. In the middle of that list of credits, there’s the following sentence: “All other images from the author’s collection,” a reference to Urbain’s paintings of his wife and his self-portraits, supporting my belief that War and Turpentine is a highly biographical novel, largely based on the author’s grandfather’s account of the Great War.

There are moving incidents in the midst of all the carnage of the war. When Urbain is sent to Liverpool for recovery from his first wound, he stumbles across a small chapel that he realizes was the one that his own father restored during a year when he left his family and went to England for employment. It’s an amazing scene because when Urbain looks closely at one of the paintings, at one of the saint’s faces, he sees his father’s face: “he had painted his self-portrait, here, where no one would think worse of him for it, in the certainty that no one would ever know or see what he had done.” But then, looking at another painting of a shepherd boy, Urbain sees his own face, his father’s attempt to keep the image of his son alive for him.

So many novels are about artists (painters, writers, musicians); the history of the novel is replete with them. Stefan Hertmans’ War and Turpentine deserves a special place in that pantheon of great books. Read it with horror because of the war but also with lasting pleasure. The translation from the Dutch by David McKay is pure joy.

Stefan Hertmans: War and Turpentine
Trans. by David McKay
Pantheon, 290 pp., $26.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.