This book is so complex and layered with both story and feeling, that I can barely put my thoughts into words. It is a breathtakingly, sublime narrative. Operatic in scope, the past unfolds. It is a compassionate story as the grandson, a writer, pieces together his grandfather’s painfully poetic past. A Flemish artist, and relentlessly obedient soldier who fought during some of the most horrific battles of World War I, is painted through found letters, narrative story-telling, and most unusal for a novel, images. A story of of this one life – loves, loss, pain, beauty, redemption – are strewn throughout the pages.
Oftentimes, I found myself referring back to the bibliographic page. I needed the assurance that, “Yes, this is fiction.” While it is not memoir, it reads like one; there are pages where you swear that the writer has lived this life. The nuance. The details. None is more so than his description of the warfare. It is visceral. It is repulsive. It is heartbreaking.
“We scooped the dirty water out of the pits, since there was nothing else to drink. When darkness came, a few soldiers made the rounds of the pits to hand out bullets…by midday, a few of our boys lay dead beside the pits they had begun to stand up on. One boy, who had planned to fetch his bayonnet from behind the wagon, lay with his eyes open where everyone could see. A bullet had passed through his open mouth, blowing out the back of his skull. His blood gushed into the wet moss” (153).
Juxtapose this brutality against the artist’s soul and vision. Sensitivty and an aching appreciation of beauty is at the core of Urbain. It is the foil to war that allows you, the reader, to continue, to take a breath. To turn the pages with tenderness.
Hertmans, Stefan, and David McKay, trans. War & Turpentine: a novel. New York: Pantheon Books, 2016. Print.