Diving deep into history loosens the ties of self-identity and self-importance. It humbles. An admixture of research, imagination, argumentation and narration, true historical focus alters how we see the world. Its rewards can be transcendent.
Stefan Hertman’s book, War and Turpentine, lies at the intersection of history, memoir and fiction. Hertmans is a successful author who also held a faculty post at the Royal Academy of Arts in Ghent, Belgium. His grandfather, Urbain Martien (1891 – 1981) was a World War I hero and an artist. In his latter years, Martien wrote six hundred pages of autobiography that he gave to Hertmans before he died. After avoiding them for a few decades – promising to himself that he would study them when he had time – the upcoming centenary of the war and an increasing sense of guilt and obligation brought Hertmans to the task. He retyped the handwritten pages, talked with relatives and family, and began to research the life and world of his grandfather.
The result, War and Turpentine, is a story of discovery, love, loss, and the horror of World War I. Martien was a soldier who struggled through tremendous trauma, driven by a sense of obligation and duty. His life was good, tragic, and deeply European, a tangled web of conflicting tendencies and values. Hertmans weaves the discovery of his grandfather and his personal memories around the heart of the book: Martien’s memories and his experiences in World War I. The war scarred him, physically and emotionally. It could not be forgotten or overcome; it irrevocably defined him.
And yet – and the yet is vitally important – the book is about Martien’s love of art and of women. It is about his mischievousness, his creativity, and his will. Taciturn and disciplined, he was also a true romantic. Hertmans’s prose and structure are engaging, giving the story a powerful emotional pull. He also knows where and how to share the unexpected – the discovery of an image or a childhood memory of an aging man doing a handstand.
Are any of us any smarter, braver, wiser or more talented?
War and Turpentine was awarded several prizes, all well-deserved. It is a book (not just a novel) that will hold up well over time, just as Urbain Martien did.