Translated from the Dutch by David McKay
Shortly before his death, Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain Martien gave his grandson a set of notebooks containing the detailed memories of his life. He grew up in poverty around 1900, the son of a struggling church painter who died young, and went to work in an iron foundry at only 13. Afternoons spent with his father at work on a church fresco were Urbain’s heaven; the iron foundry an inferno.
During the First World War, Urbain was on the front line confronting the invading Germans, and ever after he is haunted by events he can never forget. The war ends and he marries his great love, Maria Emelia, but she dies tragically in the 1919 flu epidemic. Urbain mourns her bitterly for the rest of his life but, like the obedient soldier he is, he marries her sister at her parents’ bidding. The rest is not quite silence, but a marriage with a sad secret at its heart, and the consolations found in art and painting. War and Turpentine is the imaginative reconstruction of a damaged life across the tumultuous decades of the twentieth century; a deeply moving portrayal of family, grief, love and war.
About the author
Stefan Hertmans is the prizewinning author of many literary works, including poetry, novels, essays, plays, short stories and a handbook on the history of art. He has taught at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, at the Sorbonne, the Universities of Vienna, Berlin and Mexico City, at The Library of Congress in Washington, and University College London.
In beautiful prose Hertmans wrote a story about his grandfather’s recollections of the First World War. It’s an exquisite, moving and loving reconstruction of the drama of his grandfather’s life and an evocation of a whole generation of men affected by this war. But it’s more than just a war story. It’s a moving and well-constructed novel that shows us all how we can find dignity in sorrow and pain.
The life of Urbain Martien – artist, soldier, survivor of World War 1 – lies contained in two notebooks he left behind when he died in 1981. His grandson, a writer, retells his grandfather’s story with great imaginative power and vivid detail. This novel – already considered a classic – won the AKO Literatuur Prijs in 2014.
War and Turpentine is the moving story of the author’s grandfather. From his impoverished youth at the end of the 19th century to the horrors of the First World War, the book tells a story of a man obsessed with war, his beloved first wife and painting. Told in beautiful prose, this is a strong portrait of a troubled man, especially the part of his experiences in the war is breathtaking. The photographs in the book make it even more tangible.