Fact or fiction?

War and Turpentine: A novel - Stefan Hertmans, David H. McKay

The author, Stefan Hertmans, is a well-known Flemish poet. Apparently there is some debate over how much of his book, “War and Turpentine”, is fictional and how much is true.  Indeed, the main character in the book, Urbain Martien, is the author’s grandson and he did bequeath his memoirs to him, which took Hertmans 30 years before reading.  When questioned, the author has said that he only lightly edited his grandfather’s memoir.  And yet it isn’t advertised as a memoir.


The book starts out with Turpentine (his grandfather’s young days as a poor European). Part of the section is told by Hertmans as recollections of his grandfather and part is told by his grandfather and includes his recollections of his own father.  I enjoyed this section the most as it dealt with the art produced by Urbain and his father.  It beautifully portrays the life of the poor a century ago.  I especially enjoyed the photos of the artwork referenced and the personal photos contained throughout the book.  There are also essays and mediations contained in this section.


Then there is a long section, the war section, told by Urbain. This is probably the best written part of the book and I tend to think this may have been the bulk of the grandfather’s writings, though it’s written with the heart of a poet, which Hertmans is. It’s a horrific accounting of Urbain’s experiences in the war.  What struck me most about this section were the parts when Urbain would recount what he was seeing in front of him and compare it to his beautiful memories of the country, lighting up the stark difference. There were parts that were difficult to read due to their nature.


The book then goes back to Turpentine and tells of Urbain’s life after the war and his marriage to Gabrielle. This section has a sad story to tell.


As well as this book is written and the beautiful poetical prose throughout, I just never really seemed to connect with the characters. In the Turpentine sections, the author jumps around quite a bit between the author, his grandfather and his great-grandfather and would sometimes lose me.  There were many relatives that I couldn’t keep straight.  I think if I had read it as a memoir, it would have given me a different perspective than reading it as fictional based on fact.  I found it a bit disconcerting not knowing what was true and what wasn’t.


This book was given to me by the publisher through First to Read in return for an honest review.