War & Turpentine
Stefan Hertmans, translated by David McKay
War & Turpentine is an autobiographical novel based upon the experiences of the author’s grandfather during World War I. Maybe.
There are indeed some facts.
The author’s grandfather, born in 1891, died in 1981. “It was as if his life,” Mr. Hertmans writes, “were no more than two digits playing leapfrog.” Urbain, an amateur painter most of his life, left behind his wartime journals.
Beyond this, Hertmans dives into his grandfather’s world, bringing us into the context and history of Flemish Belgium around the turn of the 20th century, an industrial age where children worked long hours at dangerous foundries incurring hideous injuries that often left them scarred physically and emotionally, or worse: dead. Urbain at every turn faced hardship and danger—and this was before he was drafted.
The book is divided into three parts. Setting the foundation of family history prior to the war, then a reinvention of the wartime diaries—what the NYTimes described as speculative writing—and the third act after the war, the rest of the story. Plus a meta view of the grandson (author) who adores Urbain and at the time is unable to grasp why he is who he is. It is only later the parts come together into a whole.
It has been a 100 years since WWI and many lists are featuring literature from this time period, titles are being revisited or reissued. W & T 1914 – 1918 contains an immediacy despite the fact that it is not Urbain’s exact words, it is his story nevertheless reinterpreted by 2 generations removed.
“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 mortality. It goes to work like a painter/copyist, using illusion to depict the truth.” And, here lies the essence of the novel/memoir/memorial—who cares if it is exact, the elements of what makes it real are all there.