Tuesday, August 9, 2016

War & Turpentine

Title:  War & Turpentine
Author:  Stefan Hertmans (Author), David Mckay (Translator)
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1101874023 / 978-1101874028

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In my most distant memory of my grandfather, he is on the each at Ostend:  a man of sixty-six in a neat midnight-blue suite, he has dug a shallow pit with his grandson's blue shovel and leveled off the heaped sand around ti so that he and his wife can sit in relative comfort."

Favorite Quote:  "Places are not just space, they are also time."

War and Turpentine is a book that is part history, part biography, and part autobiography all compiled together as a novel. Stefan Hertmans' grandfather Urbein Martien (1891-1981) bequeathed to him his journals - hundreds of pages of stories ranging from his childhood, to World War I and beyond. Stefan Hertmans held on to the journals for years as a legacy of his grandfather.  He always intended to read and perhaps compose his grandfather's stories, but life and other projects always intervened. The approach of the centennial of World War I prompted him to finally undertake the task. The result is this book.

The book is published and marketed as a novel for as the author says, "This task confronted me with the painful truth behind any literary work: I first had to recover from the authentic story, to let it go, before I could rediscover it in my own way." Thus, this book is Urbein Martien's stories written as he reflects on his life mixed with Stefan Hertmans' memories of the stories he heard as a child and the entire compilation stirred through the lens of a writer putting together a literary work.

The book itself comprises of three parts. Part I deals with Urbein Martien's childhood and life up to the War. Part II is the horrific experiences of the War. Part III is life after the War, including love, marriage, children, and the scars that war leaves behind. Running throughout is the role that art, particularly painting, plays in his life. Ultimately, this book is the portrait of a man, an artist by choice and an soldier by necessity. Hence the title for both war and turpentine are formative in this man's life.

The big question I have for that portrait is how much is fact and how much is fiction, and how much has been modified and polished in the translation. Perhaps, it does not matter for this is a work of fiction. Fiction is about the story, characters, and emotions, and this fiction has its pros and cons.

The writing is very descriptive in nature. It conjures vivid images - the poverty in which Urbein Martien grows up, the foundries in which he works and the accidents he witnesses, the battle trenches, and so much more. These descriptions are particularly poignant as Part II narrates experiences in World War I. I see the places and events the author describes.

Unfortunately, I find myself getting lost through the characters, particularly in Part I. The narration in Part I shifts from Urbein Martien to Stefan Hertmans' childhood memories to Stefan Hertmans' adult commentary. Through each are a multitude of characters, making it difficult to remember chronology and relationships.  Part II is narrated solely in the voice of Urbein Martien, making it the strongest part of the book. Part III returns to the multiple narrators. All through the book, because of the descriptive narration of the book, a distance exists between reader and character, making it more difficult to engage with the story. The events of the book are sad throughout for a variety of reasons, but yet that sadness is muted as though viewed through a filter. It is this, not the fact versus fiction, that keeps me from loving this book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

No comments:

Post a Comment