War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (translated by David McKay): Man Booker Long List 2017

I have not read such a gorgeously written book in a long time. The images which Stefan Hertmans paint for us, brilliantly translated by David McKay, are as clear in my mind as if I had watched them on film. From my mind, though, they become seared on my heart until I must put down the book for a brief respite.

This story is a vivid re-imagining of the narrator’s grandfather, a man with the birth and death dates exactly matching those of my maternal grandfather: (1891-1981) “as though the numbers played leapfrog with each other.” From two notebooks of handwritten memoirs he  reconstructs his grandfather’s life, and thus creates a more complete understanding of his own.

When his grandfather comes down the stairs to present him with a gold pocket watch, the grandson has no way of knowing what a precious gift it is. The story of this watch, passed from generation to generation before it was passed to him, was yet unknown. When it slipped from his grasp, and broke into bits minutes within receiving it, he had no way of knowing the places it had been in his grandfather’s pocket. Or, in his grandfather’s life.

And I broke it, an heirloom that was nearly an antique when he was young. What could he have done with the shattered pieces? A man walks by with a panting Doberman straining at the leash; I hear pigeons cooing. It’s too late now for the remorse that holds me helpless in its grip.

(How well I remember my grandmother giving me the pearl earrings she wore for her own wedding day, and several months later asking me how I liked them. I had to tell her that I had felt my ears one day, to find that one was missing. She looked at me for awhile, but never once scolded me, before she said, “These things happen.” What memories of hers were lost with my carelessness?)

War and Turpentine tells of his grandfather’s life, from these small experiences as a young boy, to an adolescent who works a grown man’s job in an iron foundry, to his enlistment in World War I, to seeing the woman he wants to marry in an upstairs window behind his house. Before he can marry her she dies of pneumonia, and he bravely marries her elder sister, for he is a man who

…seemed to possess no egotism, conceit, or self-importance, but only an instinctive eagerness to be of service, a quality that made him both a hero and a first-class chump.

The narrative of this man, who was “tossed back and forth between the soldier he had to be and the artist he’d wished to become” became a tool for me to think back on my own family, my own history, and the hunger I often feel for time gone by.

Consider this snippet of a quote:

“…if you praise a simple fellow like that, it’ll only go to his head, and he’ll stop applying himself.”

How heartily my teachers, and even some members of my family, adhered to that sentiment! It has caused me to work unceasingly for praise, and when I became a mother, to render it too easily to my own son.

And now, perhaps you’re wondering about the inclusion of the painting by the cover of the book? It is Velazquez’s Venus at Her Mirror, known as the Rokeby Venus. But, Urbain Martien has repainted it, and unbeknownst to him is discovered by his grandson crying over the portrait. For the face which he has painted on the Venus is that of Maria Emelia, the one woman whom he truly loved, the one woman with whom the life he desired was denied. She brackets the beginning of the story, as well as the end, and lies in the shadows of all the pages in between.

Find more reviews at Tony’s Reading List, Messenger’s Booker, and ANZ Litlovers Lit Blog.

War and Turpentine by Sefan Hertmans
Translated from the Dutch by David McKay
Published August 9, 2016
304 pages