by Simona O. Grabel, PhD
A book which begins with a quote from All Quiet on the Western Front gives us fair warning of the cataclysm which is to follow. In War and Turpentine, the Flemish author Stefan Hertmans offers us a fictionalized account of his beloved grandfather’s memoirs, whose life spanned two centuries. Perhaps in atonement for the heirloom watch the author dropped and shattered, Hertman’s account of his grandfather’s life is a book about time and “the silent tragedies of what time can do with people.”
The life of his grandfather is told as a triptych: a biography of his impoverished childhood, his traumatic battle experiences in The Great War, and his painful encounter with love and loss. The triptych approach is appropriate, as this novel is a tableau of an artist’s life and identity. It is also a book about the power of identification as a way to absorb and transcend grief.
The author takes us, via his grandfather’s notebooks, through the old man’s early life in Ghent, cursed by humiliating poverty. His father had been a “lowly” church painter, who worked to restore fading Biblical frescoes. The palpable love between his parents was not enough to sustain the family. The Church sends his father to England, and the family has to endure the long separation, until the already consumptive painter returns. The boy’s discovery of his own internal calling as an artist is born of his longing for his father, and from his love. The shattering surprise of this identification leaves him in a state of fear and elation. Inevitably, his grandfather’s passion for painting was “etched into his soul in childhood.”
We are escorted through the sensual world of art, “the sights, sounds, smells, the soft sweep of the brushes.” We, too, are swept up in this world, just as the child is entranced by the “privilege of being alone with him there.” The boy recognizes that he is experiencing the “desire that feels greater than himself – to draw and paint.”
It wells up inside him like a sob, like a painful electric shock from deep within, where his unconscious has taken its time to ripen before coming to light.
The family’s grief seems like a segue into the grandfather’s transition into the Good Soldier. He is awarded for his bravery, but barely survives the emotional injuries of battle. The “unimaginable violence and terror” of the Great War paint a swath of suffering, so that even animals are seen swimming away “like an otherworldly army…messengers from a doomed world, fleeing … Armegeddon.”
The young soldier is sent to England to recover, and searches for his father’s restored murals. In an obscure country church, he is stunned to recognized his own father’s face in the visage of a saint, and then, unbelievably, his own face in a shepherd boy. The living fresco had kept their loving connection alive.
After the war, painting becomes a “quiet consolation” to the grandfather. He feels soothed by the act of drawing, often copying old masterpieces: “Our life’s a waking slumber, a slumberous wake. “ This third part of the triptych then introduces us to the Grandfather’s breathtaking discovery of love. But, it is a discovery for us, too, as the beloved is upheld next to the mother, “the one like a younger version of the other.”
It’s as if the love his father felt for his mother, until his premature death, is reborn in his love for this proud, beautiful young woman.
Because this book is about love and consolation, there is another devastating loss and attempt at reparation. The grandfather, always the “Pure Fool, the complete innocent,” lives his life in “loyalty to an absence.” The man’s life is devoted to maintaining the “tetragon” of women: his mother, his beloved, his wife (the beloved’s sister), and his daughter – the author’s mother, named for the beloved. This mission becomes bound up in art. The author is astounded to discover the face of his grandfather’s beloved idealized lost love, in a Velasquez reproduction painted by the old man.
If you have not yet read this haunting book, I envy you. The story is compelling on many levels, just like the frescoes on the aging church walls. The author, too, has become an artist – of words, capturing a vanished World. The time he seemingly shattered by dropping the gift of his grandfather’s cherished pocket watch, has been restored in the writing, and is now in our pockets.
Hertmans, Stefan. War and Turpentine. Translated by David McKay. Illustrated. 290 pages. Pantheon Books, 2016.