As a member of the Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury in 2016, I was a lone voice with my views on “Mend The Living” by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore) and with “War and Turpentine” being longlisted for both the Man Booker International Prize and the Best Translated Book Award (a US based translation award), I feel my views are, again, going to be different than the broader population.
Before I present my views on this book I think I need to point out that personally I had no relationship with either of my grandfathers, with both of them not surviving World War II, this missing relationship in my life may have influenced my views on this book.
“War and Turpentine” is described on the back cover thus;
Shortly before his death in 1981, Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain gave him some exercise books, filled with his writing. When Hertmans finally opened then, he discovered unexpected secrets. His grandfather’s life was marked by years of childhood poverty in late-nineteenth-century Belgium, by horrific experiences on the front lines during World War I and by the loss of the young love of his life. He sublimated his grief in the silence of painting.
So my first question…is this fiction? For example, outside of the obvious retelling from the exercise books, and a detailed recounting of the writer’s relationship with his grandfather, we also have numerous examples of research presented back to us. At one stage there are three pages dedicated to explaining the history of the Ghent World Fair and the plight of the Senegalese and Philippino visitors.
The book is split into three sections, the first recalling the writer’s relationship with his grandfather Urbain, the reading of the exercise books and an explanation of Urbain’s youth, relationship with his own father and the living conditions in 1800’s Belgium. The second section is a first person narration of Urbain’s experiences during World War II and the final section, his post-war life (back in the 3rd person) and relationships. There is a common theme of drawing and painting but it is sprinkled throughout.
The early section sets you up as a story of a writer’s connection with his grandfather, it is not just a history imagined, it contains a deeply personal edge. There is a fine balance between the telling of an anecdote and its personal interpretation and using poetic language Stefan Hertmans manages to walk this fine line, an example being the peppered references to Liverpool, these entice you to read further, surely the jigsaw puzzle will be completed and all the pieces will simply fall into place. But are these simply tricks drawn from a writer’s tool kit?
As a white-haired elder surrounded by an admiring circle of my aunties and cousins, he could spend hours lost in the particulars of that life in the last decade of the nineteenth century, his childhood years wrapped in the sulphurous fumes of early factories, the memories of the street hawkers’ cries, the slam of the thin wooden door of the public toilet at the end of the alley beside an ivy-covered wall that smelled of urine and nettles. The everyday dreariness of the first wave of industrialization had thoroughly shaped the contours of his thinking, although he also began early in life, after leafing through the few books his father owned, to dream of the colour palette of Tintoretto and Van Dyck.
Once the story moves to the front, and surrounds, during World War II, it is difficult to tell if this is a history imagined, or a direct representation of Urbain’s exercise books, or a blend. Given the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, Hertmans tells us that his book needed to be completed to ensure he didn’t miss the publishing rush in 2014, and as we now know there are a large number of WWI fictions available as a result of this anniversary. Therefore the recreation of the horrors of the trenches needs to be masterful, at least, to stand out from a plethora of similar writings, either that or you have a great publicist working at your publishing house. With comments such as “A multi-award winner in Europe that sold 200,000 copies in the Netherlands and Belgium alone” appearing in the blubs, I’m firmly in the “great publicist” camp here.
The final section is an absolute mish-mash, almost unreadable, where Hertmans staggers from one cliché to the next trying to find an exit for his previous 290 odd pages. It covers Urbain’s post war life, hardly touches on WWII, tells little of his wife (Hertmans’ grandmother) or daughter, muddles around with copying paintings (is this a parallel reference to Hertmans copying his grandfathers’ exercise books) and uses melodrama poorly to keep you turning the pages. It is rare I tackle a 300 page book and keep procrastinating when only 29 pages from the end, with this one I delayed the last 10% for over a day and may well have left it aside if I didn’t have Shadow Jury duties.
Two overblown examples of cliché, plot device are the family heirloom, a pocket watch that has survived untold horrors (including the trenches) and a secret nude painting reproduction that brings tears to the eyes of Urbain, a cheap “mystery” device sprinkled throughout to keep you page turning.
If this book is fiction then it is over worked, formulaic and manipulative, if it is not fiction then what the f* is it doing on two literature longlists?
There is one redeeming feature for this book and it is the quality of the prose, Hertmans can write, it is a pity he has reduced himself to schmaltz, corniness and cheap writing techniques taught in books for “dummies”. Thank goodness he can write, it is the quality of the prose that rescues this book from the “unreadable” pile.