War and Turpentine
Stefan Hertmans
David McKay, Translator

Hertman's family are Dutch from the area around Ghent. Their language is an odd mix of English and German. It is spoken by around twenty million people, but when compared to Mandarin Chinese (1,310,000,000), or English (941,000,000) or even Spanish, Arabic, or Hindi (300,000,000 - 400,000,000 speakers each) - - - it is definitely a minority tongue.

Its secondary place in the family of languages is made much of in War and Turpentine. During Urbain Martien's military service in World War One, he and the other grunt soldiers are forced to take orders from the haughty French speakers of the Belgian command. These officers looked down on those who spoke low Dutch. They also regularly mispronounced Martien's name. When he was called on to translate from French to Dutch ("Mar-shen, translate!"), he replied (and does so at least a dozen times in the course of this book) "À vos ordres, mon commandant. Je m'appelle Mar-tien, mon commandant.

§   §   §

Urbain Martien was Hertmann's grandfather, and we are with him - - - indeed we are him - - - through his childhood in the countryside around Ghent and again as he became one of the foot-soldiers of the first World War. We are allowed to live as a boy at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginnings of the twentieth, in a fair part of Europe, in a gentle and leisurely time, idyllically filled as it is with birds and flowers and trees and the aromas of the provincial towns, where

    the world he grew up in before 1900 was full of smells that now have largely disappeared. A tannery gave off its tenacious stench in the thin September mist; the tenders with their loads of raw coal pulled in and out of the station in the dark winter months; the odor of horse droppings in the streets in the early-morning hours could create the illusion, for the half-slumbering boy by the drafty window, that he was in the countryside somewhere, as could the smell of hay, herbs, and grass that still pervaded the city. The penetrating odor of old wood and damp sackcloth prevailed in the dimly lit shops where salt, sugar, flour, and beans were still sold en vrac, in bulk, scooped into sacks and canisters brought by the women who shopped there. The closed courtyards smelled of Brussels sprout trimmings, horse manure scraped off the streets, and drying tobacco leaves. Describing his own grandmother, born in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, he said that her black apron - - - he called it a pinafore - - - smelled like the offal of young rabbits.

This is the world that Urbain and the author and you and I began to discover as slowly as he - - - Urbain's grandchild - - - drifts with us into the freshness and beauty of the lowlands from a century ago.

The first half of War and Turpentine gives us Urbain's family, his powerful, gray-eyed mother, his artist father, the latter being the one who was to give his child a passion for drawing . . . though Franciscus warned him never to make it his life's study, for the artist's life, he claimed, was nothing but penury and suffering.

And although the book will lead us through the bucolic world of the pre-WWI Dutch countryside, the author is not content to let us rest in such glory. After a time immersed in the landscape, Hertman will take us to the rendering plant with its pile of heads of the just-butchered animals, "animal heads of all shapes and sizes lay in the center of the filthy yard, heaped into a pyramid."

    The heads of horses, cows, sheep, and pigs shone there in a viscous, spreading mass, freshly dumped from the cart. A swarm of fat flies, so dense and infernal they looked like a flaming blue mist, droned around the heads with their huge extinguished eyes like staring boils, their bleeding eyes, their sunken eyes with dead gazes and blind pupils where maggots swarmed.

And not soon after, we go to the foundry where the thirteen-year-old Urbain works to support his family, the hovel with its "deafening racket, among the men carrying heavy hunks of iron, in the burning heat of the furnaces, amid the yelling and shouting, the crude jokes , and the poisonous vapors that fill his lungs . . . Some of the men have a pale gloss over their eyes from working in the flow of the hot metal. Others have what resemble club feet from stepping in molten iron by the furnace. They are like mild-mannered demons roaming their underworld, tough and long-suffering, dogged and withdrawn."

    One day it happens: the plug falls out of the worn-out stoke hole, there is not enough damp clay in the bucket, and the men shout at Urbain to shift the basin back in place and keep it upright until they return with clay from the courtyard. The river of fire is soon spurting over the edge of the crucible, which he tries to hold steady with all his strength. They call out that he must not let it up, he feels the heat swallow him up, he is blinded, burned alive, his head goes hazy - - - and then, after some sort of rush of wind inside his ears, there is a deafening silence. The fiery river spills over the rim of the basin; his hands seem to have disappeared. The molten iron winds its way around his clogs, he feels them cracking under the searing pressure - - - he thinks of club feet, he cannot move, behind him is a frenzied motion he no longer notices, the heat enfolds him like a mother, cradling him, numbing him, the yelling and shouting ebbs away again. Dark patches appear in the vast, divine light that beckons him, great shovelfuls of earth all around him and into the blazing stoke hole, and then a plug on a lance after all, the return of something like consciousness, hissing and bubbling, a nauseous feeling, large hands reaching out to him and voices calling, Come here, lad, quick. But he stays stock-still, his head spinning, the handkerchief sticking out of his trouser pocket has caught fire and is burning like a faint blue flower behind him. He sees the upturned eyes of a saint his father painted in an old fresco in a silent Sunday church; he wants to keep sitting here forever. Then someone comes running across the strip of earth, tugs at his shoulders, grabs him by the armpits, and pulls. His clogs are clenched and trapped in the cooling iron; a man with a crowbar starts breaking them off his feet. It all feels like a part of a dream, and when he is finally lifted out of the broken clogs and carried off, he retches up what little he has eaten that day. He is laid in the courtyard in the lukewarm drizzle, where he slowly returns to his senses and watches the gray clouds drift by.

At that moment, something in me changed, he writes. And something in the reader changes, too.

I guess one could call this a Bildungsroman but if so, it is one of learning for both boy and reader, as we are pulled from the beautiful countryside, into a foundry (or a rendering plant) and then, in the second part of the book, to countries immersed in a war which as a beast will eat up villages, the lives of families, the lives of too many young men, all forced to live (and die) with war's grotesqueries for more than four years, a horrific period in European history where all are involved in a war that was supposed to last for mere months (all thought the war would "be over by Christmas"), but becomes one that goes on and on while delivering brutish lessons on how to destroy both soul and youth, the horror-show Wilfred Owen titled "Dulce et Decorum Est"

    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues . . .

§   §   §

Hertmans forces reader and hero alike into a new form of war. For never had war been fought in the trenches, moiled with a brand new gestält of machine guns, grenades, artillery, gas, machines, wreck the land . . . along with a new morality, one that led national governments to force war not only on each other, but on entire peoples. A new kind of war where peaceful men could be rounded up from the field and home and shot; a new morality that had never been seen in previous conflicts.

In Urbain's early campaigns in Flanders, the soldiers trudged through the "stunning" countryside, where "summer clouds drifted over the waving grain in the distance, the stands of trees in pastures shaded the grazing cattle, swallows and larks darted through the air, sticklebacks glinted in the clear brooks, lines of willows swayed their branches in the warm breeze."

    It reminded me of the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painters, of their peaceful pictures, of treetops painted by the English artist Constable, dappled with patches of light and shadow, of the tranquil existence he had captured on canvas.

And this bucolic otherworldly existence comes quickly to be pitted against a war story.

We could go on to describe Hertman's haunting pictures of trench warfare - - - but I think it is safer to let his words speak for themselves. In two readings [see below] you'll find a special mastery of words that puts us directly in the trenches.

I can tell you as a long-time WWI addict, I have read too many writers who try to capture that particular vision, but Hertman has them all beat. How? By an exquisite blending of art and specificity, in this case blessed with an excellent translation by David McKay.

The writer manages to capture a relentless picture of the contradiction of people raised in civility being quickly transformed as they live among the rats and mangled bodies and soul-wrecking weeks months years of fire-power, chaos - - - ones that left those who went through it mentally and socially crippled for the rest of their days (as was Urbain).

§   §   §

War and Turpentine was something special for me. It's my job to read and review several books a month. I've been doing this for many years. With this deluge of reading matter, it is all too rare that I have willingly taken up a book, read it through, waited a few days and, at the end of that period, picked up the same book, gone through it, slowly, again - - - enchanted (again!), all the while, trying to figure out how the writer did it.

And I should say, at the end of this, I damn near found myself wanting to pick it up yet again . . . to give it a go just one more time.

Hertman's writing isn't just mastery; it's divine. And it deserves everything we can give it.

--- Lolita Lark
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