Thursday 14 June 2018

Hertmans, Stefan "War and Turpentine"

Hertmans, Stefan "War and Turpentine" (Dutch/Flemish: Oorlog en terpentijn) - 2013

I had not heard about this author before even though he probably should be known in the Netherlands since there are not so many countries that write in Dutch. When it was suggested in our book club, I thought this would be a good choice to read another Belgian author.

And it was. Stefan Hertmans tells about his grandfather's life according to the memoirs the latter hat written. It is a heartwarming tale about a young man who was 23 when World War I started and had to go into a war nobody wanted. His father had been a painter and so was he. We hear a lot about that part of his life but even more about his life in the trenches in the fields of Flanders.

The story is us about the life of the protagonist as a child, a young man, a married man and later, an old man, partly through his own diary. But its also a story about the author and how he grew up with his grandfather.

A nice story, well told, very picturesque.

I read this in the original Dutch language.

From the back cover:

"Shortly before his death in 1981, Stefan Hertmans' grandfather gave him a couple of filled exercise books. Stories he’d heard as a child had led Hertmans to suspect that their contents might be disturbing, and for years he didn’t dare to open them.

When he finally did, he discovered unexpected secrets. His grandfather’s life was marked by years of childhood poverty in late-nineteenth-century Belgium, by horrific experiences on the frontlines during the First World War and by the loss of the young love of his life. He sublimated his grief in the silence of painting.

Drawing on these diary entries, his childhood memories and the stories told within Urbain’s paintings, Hertmans has produced a poetic novelisation of his grandfather’s story, brought to life with great imaginative power and vivid detail.

War and Turpentine is an enthralling search for a life that coincided with the tragedy of a century - and a posthumous, almost mythical attempt to give that life a voice at last."

We read this in our international book club in May 2018.


  1. Somehow I had not realized that Dutch was the language of Belgium. I have much to learn about the part of the world where you live now. How did the book club like this book?

    1. Belgium actually has three official languages, Dutch or Flemish in the Northern part, Flanders, French in the Southern part, the Wallonie, and German in a small Eastern part. Brussels is bilingual, both languages have the same right and everything has to be marked in both of them, street names, adverts, anything. For an exact view of how the country is divided, check this article or this one on Wikipedia. They are both pretty informative. And if you have any questions, ask me, as you know, I used to live in Belgium which, according to your President, is "a beautiful city". ;)

    2. Oh, and as to the book club, unfortunately, I had to miss this meeting, due to my stupid migraines. But I'll let you know once I talked to someone.