“I don’t like reading movies much” is how I often describe my rejection of contemporary literature that relies heavily on the surprising turns and twists of plot, because I’ve often found that the degree to which such stories are entertaining, they are bereft of the lyricism that invokes reflection and the lingering taste of beauty.
As translated from the Dutch by David McKay, Stefan Hertmans’s War & Turpentine was, therefore, quite the opposite. The plot is thread-bare: the grandson of Urbain Martien, the son of an impoverished church painter in Flanders and WWI soldier who married his deceased love’s sister, follows the steps of his grandfather through the notebook diaries he had been left behind to connect himself to the past and portray a kind of man and world that no longer exist, echoing from a time of humility, duty, poverty and simplicity. And it is onto this fine frame that Hertman artfully weaves the reflections both past and present to tell the story of a man and an era that had been blown apart on the fields of Flanders, but also in the hearts of men who struggled for dignity both before and after the unprecedented atrocity of modern war.
I confess there were moments when even I hoped for a surprising plot to hang onto and not be forced to read the uniquely lyrical, sparing prose so slowly. But the shear originality of the work astounded with its intertwining of characters past and present through notebooks and he who reads them; the stories behind the paintings; the simmering history of discontent that would explode into the solidarity and violence of soldiers; and an unromantic love story. I got much, much more than what had been the expected combination of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong. The work is a class for any writer of how to do so much more with less and demanding for readers who will be handsomely rewarded with contemplation of how a seemingly innocuous life can reverberate through time.
“I will never forget the impression that faraway, vanquished mural made on me. It may have even fated me to become the man I am today, wavering between a full, difficult life and the quiet consolations of painting.”