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

While The Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier


No detail is too small for Erwin Mortier. It is as though he has taken up the pen of Marcel Proust with which to tell us about World War I, and initially I became frustrated at the lack of movement. But, I pushed on and found a tender beauty in every description, and passages which I had to mark with pieces of paper torn off from the letter beside me.

We begin with an elderly woman named Helena, who is lovingly cared for by a gentle woman named Rachida. We listen to this elderly woman, speaking in the first person, tell us how she is carefully set against pillows after she has been carefully washed and combed for the day. She is set up with a writing desk, notebook, and pen. It seems evident that she is recording her memories, the details of her life with her family and then her husband. Going back in time, and sometimes staying in the present, we learn what it was like to be a girl in France when the Archduke was murdered. And then when the presence of the war was felt.

It is not easy for me to read about war. I’m sure part of that is because my son is a United States Marine, and when is the United States ever at peace? Before I was born, my grandfather was in WWI, my father was in the Korean War, my babysitter’s brothers were killed in Vietnam. My husband barely escaped Desert Storm, and my son has not yet been called to the Middle East. I pray he never is. For this passage about informing mothers of their son’s death pierces me to the core:

It is the women who take the blows, he was wont to say. Imagine the look on the face of a mother with two or three sons at the front, not exactly a rarity in large farming families in the countryside. The uncertainty behind the certainty that you are knocking at her door to report the death of one of her children . She has seen you coming across the yard. above the hedge of the front garden with the country flowers, which have been so immaculately hoed and raked, since weeding helps take her mind off the fate of her boys, she has recognized your hat. She has heard the gate creak. She would like her house to bean unassailable fortress, a thick shell. she sees you coming across the yard or up the garden path. She realizes that this time there is no blood on the lintel and side posts of her door, that the angel with the sword has not spared her house this time–all she does not yet know is which of her sons has fallen.

The reference to the Old Testament in this passage is beautiful. There is no Passover for the woman whose son is lost at war. She cannot strike branches of hyssop, dipped in lamb’s blood, against her door frame in the belief that the Angel of Death will pass over her home. How does one bear the ravages of war when there is so much agony?

While The Gods Were Sleeping is an important book, as almost all the books nominated for the IFFP are. One doesn’t “like” such a book; one is moved by it, and lives in it, and is grateful upon closing the last page that one’s life is peaceful.

At least for today.

Erwin MortierErwin Mortier (1965) made his mark in 1999 with his debut novel Marcel, which was awarded several prizes in Belgium and the Netherlands, and received acclaim throughout Europe. In the following years he quickly built up a reputation as one of the leading authors of his generation. his novel While the Gods Were Sleeping received the AKO literature Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the Netherlands, and has been translated into five languages.

Paul Vincent taught Dutch at the University of London for over twenty years before becoming a full-time translator. In 2012 he was awarded the Vondel Translation Prize.

Find more reviews at roughghosts, and David’s Book World.

Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

Well, he’s done it again, Mr. Koch has. Written a novel which pinned me to my green wing back chair for the better part of the past two days. This time, the details are far more gruesome than in The Dinner. A general practitioner named Marc Schlosser is narrating the story, a story which begins and ends in nearly the same place: with a famous actor named Ralph Meier taking a lethal dose to incur his own death. In between him preparing to swallow it, and actually downing the shot glass, is the whole complicated story.
The story involves Marc’s family, and Marc himself, over the vacation they took one summer. Ralph and his wife Judith invited the Schlossers to their summer house with a swimming pool. And because Marc is infatuated with Judith, he accepts. It is the fatal flaw which brings irrevocable damage to the whole family. Both families, in fact. But, not because Marc and Judith are attracted to each other.
No. When something happens to Marc’s eldest daughter, while the fathers are drinking and carousing on the beach not a mile from where she has gone, the suspicions are heightened to an unbearable point. Who is to blame for the incident? How will it be resolved?
I found it fascinating that Herman Koch included a problem with Marc’s eye the very night of the tragedy. Something has landed in it, something that makes it impossible for him to open his eye fully, or keep it open for long. Soon his eye is swollen shut, red and lumpy. He must eventually lance it to release the pressure of infection. Could it possibly refer to the admonition in the New Testament to get the plank out of your own eye before trying to remove the speck in someone else’s? For me, this is exactly the case.
Because if anyone is innocent, it is not Marc himself.
(Find another review from Lizzy’s Literary Life here.)

The Dinner by Herman Koch


Herman Koch examines each detail of his diners as closely as the waiter articulates the origin of each course. Nothing is too minute to point out, but it isn’t boring. It’s a slow reveal with building tension much like a Hitchcock film; you’re actually poised in your chair for the conclusion, practically unable to wait for it any longer. As Alfred Hitchcock says, “There’s no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

Four parents meet at an exclusive Dutch restaurant to hold an important discussion about their sons, and as we go through each course, from aperitif to dessert, we become increasingly aware that something terrible has occurred. Through veiled looks and subtle movements, to the point of shouting and crying, we are led through the dinner. Through the actions of their sons. Through the shocking conclusion.

Perhaps what is most shocking is the attitude of the parents, the way that one pair wants to reveal all that has happened, while the other pair not only wants to hide it but ignore it. I found myself wondering how it is that some people are able to focus more on image than on truth. Or, on getting by than being accountable for their actions. And throughout the novel are little lines which made me stop short.

One father tells us in his narration, “We never tried to influence him (his son); we would have let him have any dessert he liked, so you couldn’t blame it on his upbringing. It was hereditary. Yes, that was the only word for it. If heredity existed, if anything was hereditary, than it had to be our aversion to sweet desserts.” (p. 221)

Sweet desserts?! Sweet mother of God, desserts have nothing to do with the situation about which we are reading. I was mesmerized in my chair all day yesterday, unable to pull myself away from this novel which forced me to examine parenting. Responsibility. Heredity. The consequences of our free will.

The Dinner is an exceptionally exciting novel, with none of the conveniently contrived conclusions that I have found in so many “thrillers”. It would be perfect for a book club discussion, although it is perfectly suited to reading all in one day, by oneself, such as I did.

The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker

Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.

Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.

~Emily Dickinson

With this poem as its foundation, Gerbrand Bakker writes the most piercing novel I have read all year. It unfolds slowly slowly slowly before us as he teases out the reason why Emilie has come to Wales, to live in a thatched cottage once inhabited by old Mrs. Evans, and dwell there with the white geese who gradually are reduced to only four.

Halfway through the novel a boy with black curly hair, and a great dog named Sam, join her. The boy cooks for her, and fixes up the garden, and refuses to leave each time she asks him. He doesn’t inquire about the way her lucidity slips away from time to time, nor about the strips of pills from which she gradually presses more than one to ease her pain. He simply stays with her resolutely.

Far away in Amsterdam, Emilie’s husband decides to look for her. He meets with her parents, he hires a detective, and eventually he sends a card which simply says her name, and his, with the words “I’m coming” in between.

I chose to read this book because it was short listed for the IFFP; I feel no need to read any of the other contenders. It is so completely satisfying, so beautifully told, so multi-layered and rich in meaning that I am hoping already it is declared the winner.

Find more thoughts here and here and here.

(Found out on May 20, 2013 that The Detour did in fact win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.)