maandag 4 april 2016

Stefan Hertmans: Oorlog en Terpentijn


I got this book from my nephew Wouter as a Secret Santa gift last year.
It has been hugely popular here in Belgium and I’ve wanted to read it for ages but I just never got around to buying or borrowing it.
My copy has 334 pages. In it is a really lovely dedication written by Wouter. I love it when people write a dedication in a book they give to me; it gives the book so much meaning and when rereading it years from now you can still remember who gave it to you.

Oorlog en Terpentijn is the story told by the grandson of our protagonist. It is the true story about this man, his life and his experiences during The First World War. The book is a mixture of this grandson’s memories of his grandfather and two notebooks written by his grandfather before his death.

It’s very difficult reviewing and rating a book based on someones life. Especially if that life has been so hard and miserable. If I have something negative to say about it I almost feel like I’m undervaluing his achievements or like I’m underrating what he went through. And that’s definitely not what I’m saying.

That being said I can move on with the review.

I don’t think this is the masterwork everyone seems to think it is.

Hertmans’ writing style is a bit too snobbish. He is part of the same bourgeoisie he condemns in the novel and it shows in his sentences and the way he writes. It’s flowery, philosophical, dramatic and he tries way to much ‘literary’.
And it’s those parts written in Hertmans’ language that make the novel only so-so for me.
It’s also very confusing. Hertmans jumps from talking about himself to his grandfather and his great-grandfather and back and so on. Some moments it’s not clear who he’s actually talking about.
What I did especially like about his parts were the historical tidbits about Ghent. Having lived near Ghent and studied there I know all the places he talks about and it was super interesting to see them before me like clouds from a past.

The middle part is supposed to be from the notebooks his grandfather left him and those recount his life during the war.
Those chapters were hard, shocking and absolutely heart-wrenching. I had to take a breather at the beginning of the second part. It gets better but only because his grandfather doesn’t feel the need to keep writing about the same horrible conditions over and over again even though these conditions were true at the time. It didn’t change so he saw no purpose in repeating himself. He got numb for a time.

Oorlog en Terpentijn is difficult to get through because it rings so true and because of the subject. But it is well worth the read especially for those of us who haven’t grown up with stories about it by their grandparents.
It’s important to keep this alive. Read it. Please.


Happy reading.

Sunday evening.

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