War and Turpentine

…I wonder, time and again, what it is that connects us to our grandparents in this ambivalent way. Is it the absence of the generational conflict between parents and children? In the yawning gap between our grandparents and ourselves, the battle for our imagined individuality is waged, and the separation in time permits us to cherish the illusion that a greater truth lies concealed there than in what we know of our own parents.

It is a great and powerful naivete that makes us thirst for knowledge.

For over a month, I carried Stefan Hertmans’s (translated by David McKay) War and Turpentine (Amazon | Indiebound) in my backpack as I traveled from San Francisco to Pampanga, Philippines.

I started reading the book just as I was getting ready for a trip to the homeland, slowly getting to know Hertmans’s grandfather, Urbain Martien. It was inevitable then, that my thoughts slowly warmed to the memories of both my grandfathers, Emilio Cortez and Cornelio Galang, two significant figures of my childhood.

Hertmans’s novel (if it can be called that because it is so much more), is an ode of tenderness, memory and intimacy to an equally tender hero of the author’s heart (towards the end, mine as well) and of the First World War.

Stefan Hertmans with a portrait of Urbain Martien

For more than thirty years I kept, and never opened, the notebooks in which he had set down his memories in his matchless prewar handwriting; he had given them to me a few months before his death in 1981, at the age of ninety. He was born in 1891. It was as if his life were no more than two digits playing leapfrog.

War and Turpentine (Amazon | Indiebound) is not your typical war novel, nor is it historical fiction. For Urbain was not just a Belgian soldier, held by the crutches of destruction of the First World War; he was also a delicate painter — a dreamer, a creator, an impassioned lover, a believer of all things beautiful.

His life in the battlefield was book-ended by his life as a painter, from A childhood spent watching his father create murals to later years when he would sit and paint for hours, in the quiet of his old age.

His grand passions were treetops, clouds and folds in fabric. In these formless forms he could let go, lose himself in a dream world of light and dark, in clouds congealed in oil paint, chiaroscuro, a world where nobody else could intrude, because something — it was hard to say what — had broken inside him.

More than his paintings, and more than his war years (1914-1918), I was struck with Urbain’s sense of the world. In spite of a childhood ravished by war and poverty, his recollections about his family, particularly his parents, contained a kind of impeccable gentleness. His was of a contemplative, quiet temperament.


The chapters detailing the war years were the hardest for me to read. I’m not a fan of international or local geopolitics (aka imperialism), nor will I ever read war chronicles for pleasure (although I know it’s essential at some point). I was detached from the text during these portions, but it was also due to a hectic and busy schedule while I was back home. As I was relishing being in the soil that birthed me, my mind was far, far away from Urbain’s predicament at military camps.

As soon as I was back in the States, I mustered up the will to finish the book. Homesick as soon as the plane touched down at SFO, I had Urbain’s life to read about. And in the midst of it all, I found a kind of peace in his own longing, in his own pursuit of peace.

His joie de vivre had sprouted in the darkest soil — he says plenty about that in his memoirs. Urbain Martien, predestined for everything and for nothing (because he had many indefinable talents, his mother once said, laughing). Urban was a hardy survivor, but sensitive and sentimental. Standing in the sun on an Easter Sunday morning at the age of seventy, he could blurt out with tears in his eyes that the blue of the flowering irises in the backyard was so unfathomably deep around their bright yellow hearts that it gave him palpitations — something like that — and it was a shame a person had to die without ever understanding how such things came to be.

Hertmans’s prose about Urbain is almost always poetic, a flurry of emotions in words. stencil_soldier_dovesReading him muse and wonder about his grandfather was a touching experience, and I was vividly reminded of Warsan’s poem My Grandfather’s Hands. I rarely come across literature in which the focal point are grandparents, so it comes as a treat every time I do.

And boy, what a mighty man Urbain was with his gentle soul, his hands full of secrets. Hertmans is lucky, and I am luckier for having the opportunity to learn and read about a man like him in my lifetime.

This paradox was the constant in his life, as he was tossed back and forth between the soldier he had to be and the artist he’d wished to become. War and turpentine. The tranquility of his final years made it possible for him to slowly overcome his traumas. Praying to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, he found peace. One the eve of his death, he went to bed with the words, “I was so happy today, Maria.” His daughter nodded and gave him a goodnight kiss. He went to his room.

* * *


War and Turpentine (Amazon | Indiebound) by Stefan Hertmans (translated by David McKay)
Pantheon, First Edition edition
August 9, 2016 (304 pages)
My rating: ★★★★★
War and Turpentine


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