War and Turpentine – Stefan Hertmans (translated by David McKay) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize and Best Translated Book Award


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.

The Man I Became – Peter Verhelst (translated by David Colmer)

When I think about it, I can conclude that I was force to become human in a very reckless way and that I am trying very carefully to remain it.

The theme of displacement is a common one in world literature, but I’m pretty sure I have never read a novel that is narrated by a gorilla. The opening sections of award winning Flemish writer Peter Verhelst’s, eleventh novel, “The Man I Became” tells the tale, in a first person narration, of a gorilla being captured, taken from his home and put onto a ship. The parallels to captured slaves, to refugees fleeing their homelands could not be more obvious:
We sailed into the New World at night. The ship docked. We heard knocking. Only when the enormous lights turned on did we see hundreds of people behind the glass walls. Their mouths opened and closed, but we couldn’t hear what they were shouting. Or were they laughing? Why were they waving? Were they angry? We couldn’t hear them through the thick glass, we could only hear their hands slapping the glass. Some of us hunched down, trying to make ourselves invisible. Flashes of light on all sides. And among all those red faces, all those gaping mouths, I saw – and will remember forever – the face of a girl. She looked straight into my eyes, and hers were gleaming. And on her lips I saw the sweetest, quietest, most delicate smile.
Whilst not your everyday narration, the story told by a gorilla, the language, style and themes capture you straight from the opening page;
Now that this story has been completed, I realize I didn’t write it seeking forgiveness – life itself forgave me long ago – but because the emotions belong to everyone: the sorrow, the longing, even the happiness. And what is happiness anyway? Perhaps, after finishing the story, the reader, like me, will witness the way the evening sun can sink through a woman. The glow on the face of a woman that allows us to see the sun long after it has set – I come from a family who value things like that. Stay sitting where you are a little longer to wait for the stars, which will appear like embers years after the fire has gone out. That too is a miracle.
However, this is not simply the tale of a gorilla captured, sent to the “New World”, as our narrator is taught how to chat, how to act human, use cutlery, shave, wear suits and after “rehabilitation” he is required to pass the ultimate test of his assimilation by attending a cocktail party. To simply draw parallels to a world currently struggling with the Syrian refugee crisis, or to align the story with tales of people fleeing Eastern Europe, or Africa, then having to readjust to their new surroundings in a different environment with a different culture a different set of basic rules, would be to miss some of the subtler nuances and observations of daily Western life.
We spent that whole evening and night unlocking the secrets of our telephones, our memories growing with every second.

Our narrator has obviously progressed well, to the stage where he can write this novel, but the retrospective view of his life includes pertinent observations about humanity’s relationship with nature, about our obsessions with “humanising” or domesticating animals, viewed with an element of innocence as our narrator slowly becomes aware of human frailties.
As the protagonist progresses through his assimilation and training he becomes so adept at being human he becomes one of the actors in a “Dreamland” show, performed solely by animals, about the history of civilisation. The commercial success of Dreamland based on tourists coming to view giraffes, lions, monkeys, gorillas, all performing in a spectacular light show, about the history of humanity. Again the parallels to shows by circuses or by SeaWorld are startling, and to have this narrated to us in the voice of one of the animal performers could be blasé, however in this case it is pulled off with masterful aplomb.
Also containing technological references, not just our reliance on telephones as the quote above shows, nor our decline in memory as these tools replace our needs, but also to advances such as the internet, the anonymous online behaviours, are subtly planted throughout.
Being part of Peirene Press’ “Fairy Tale Series”, the first of three books under that heading for 2016, I feel this is a fair description, containing elements of class struggles, justice, judgement, growth and development this tale, although short, is a wonderful observation on numerous topical subjects.
Written in simple, sharp, detached language, it is almost factual in presentation, containing glimmers of mystery and corruption (what would an expose on human frailties or culture be without corruption?), the language reflects what a taught gorilla may use when writing his memoirs. Containing the detached innocence an animal may feel, by not understanding the complexities of human corruption, the pursuit of the almighty dollar and the exploitation required for that end, this is both a revelation and depressing. Holding a mirror up to our society and having the view not being all that pretty is a wonderful expose.
Peirene Press books all contain the quote from the TLS, “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film” and this latest release fits that bill nicely. Peirene also donate 50p from the sale of this book to Counterpoint Arts, a charity that promotes the creative arts by and about refugees and migrants in the UK. As the directors of Counterpoint Arts say on the inner sleeve; “We are living in a time of human displacement. We need bold and imaginative interventions to help us make sense of migration. And who better to do this than artists who are engaging with this issue.” A book that is wonderfully aligned with that statement, a book about displacement, a surreal fairy tale, but one that lingers and will make you think twice before you buy that next circus or SeaWorld ticket.

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