Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

War and Turpentine
Reviewed by Courtland Jindra

War and Turpentine

by Stefan Hertmans; Translated by David McKay
Pantheon Books, 2016

Who were our grandparents, or great-grandparents? Obviously most of us know very little about our great grandparents, but even our grandparents are largely a mystery. We know them as the doting older people that we see on holidays with a few stories they never get tired of telling, but rarely do we get much further insight.

Belgian Soldiers on the Lys Front, 1914

Stefan Hertmans seemed to have a similar experience. His own grandfather, Urbain Martien, was a former Belgian soldier who used to tell stories that Stefan never much paid close attention to. During the last 17 years of his life, Urbain attempted to write down all the memories of his early days up until the end of the Great War. He then gave these notebooks, 600 pages in total, to his grandson, hoping that Stefan (as the young writer in the family) would know what to do with them. For 30 years, Hertmans avoided reading these, as he had a feeling he wasn't ready, but then with the approaching centennial, he finally devoured them. Hertmans then took these notes and crafted a book that is equally biography, memoir, historical novel, and tragedy.

Much of the text is written in a free-flowing, esoteric style that may be off-putting to some readers. However, I was spellbound from the opening page. Hertmans dives in between various timelines: his own childhood with his grandfather; Urbain as a child growing up; and Hertmans himself as a middle aged man trying to find the places discussed in his grandfather's notebooks. I could not hope to try to explain all the narrative threads that are woven back and forth. However, the text mostly divides into three parts: Urbain's early years leading up to the war, his time in service, and his postwar life.

The first section begins with the young Urbain as he tells the story of his childhood in Ghent. His father was a local painter, who mostly created frescoes for local churches but was always poor and usually in ill health from the lead in his paints. His mother, who had come from means but had fallen in love with the poor painter, made clothes as a way to keep the family afloat. As Urbain got a little older, he went to work in a local foundry, where he miraculously escaped death himself—but saw it. Despite these early years having a darkness to them with the constant poverty and bleakness, the tale is at the same time a wistful love letter to a more innocent time.

The middle section involves Urbain's military service in World War One. In this section, Hertmans writes from the perspective of Urbain himself (whether he copied Urbain word for word as he seems to claim, or made the style more novel-like, is something probably only he knows). Urbain is immediately called up and sent to fight the German steamroller which is crushing all resistance. The first few chapters of this section, including the Battle of the Yser, gave me, possibly for the first time, a real taste of the overwhelming superiority that Germans seemingly had as they marched west in the opening months of the conflict.

The German attack was like a blitzkrieg. Less than an hour later, we saw a moving wall of metal, smoke, and gunfire rise ahead of us; their numbers were overwhelming, and they approached with a dull rumble that seemed to herald the last judgment.

It's one thing to read about it in more academic work, but to the man on the ground, the Belgian cause really seemed hopeless.

As the front stabilized, and Urbain was wounded time after time and sent away to recuperate again and again, the section loses its sense of time after a while. It's all one long nightmare. Months, and even years, lose meaning. On other parts of the front battles happen. They hear about offensives nearby, but where Urbain is, both sides take shots at one another, with no large-scale battles occurring. Amazingly, even as the end game of the war played out elsewhere, Urbain didn't seem to be involved in any last pitch battles, and his war ended with mostly a whimper.

The final section of the book sees Urbain coming home from the war and falling in love with a local girl. However, his fiancée dies shortly thereafter in another wave of the Spanish Flu and he marries her older sister instead. And so the sad noble life of Urbain Martien continues. Hertmans looks for clues in these stories to illuminate mysteries that he saw fragments of later in life, and many of the revelations are simply heartbreaking. I promise you, if you don't feel Hertman's overriding guilt regarding a pocket watch gift, you have a heart of stone. I was nearly moved to tears multiple times throughout.

This is perhaps the hardest book review I've ever attempted to write. I really cannot do this work justice. It's not a "normal" war book, but it's profoundly moving and elegant in a way that is hard to quantify. If you are somewhat younger (I am in my late thirties) go seek out someone in their later years, someone who knows what kind of life they have led. This book is a monument dedicated forever to the memory of Urbain Martien, soldier, grandfather, painter, dutiful husband.

I never would have heard of this book if not for Consul General Henri Vantieghem of Belgium, who gave it to me as a gift at an event I helped produce last year. I will always be grateful to him, for this is one of the most beautiful stories I have ever read.

Courtland Jindra


  1. A very impressive and moving review, Courtland. Not only did you move me to order the book, but now I really look forward to reading it. Also, entering the world of Belgian soldiers during the Great War will be a novel experience for me. Thank you!

    1. Thanks David. It was certainly an unusual book, but a true gem.

  2. Thanks for this interesting review!

  3. I am ordering as well based off of your excellent review. Thanks for calling this book out!