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The more time passes from reading this book, the more I appreciate its dolorous beauty as a novel about art and war and memory and love. While I saw this as a decent 4 a month ago, I now see five stars in an iridescent visual collage of captivating and haunting splendour.
In 1981, the Belgian author Stefan Hertmans' 90-year-old Flemish maternal grandfather, Urbain Martien, gave him two large notebooks he had written in the prior several years of his memories of his Dickensian childhood growing up in Ghent, a port city of Belgium, and of his military service in World War I. Hertmans did not pull out the notebooks and begin work on the novel until after 2010 with the approach of the 100-year anniversary of WW I.
The novel is split into three parts. The first is Martien's childhood, the second his action in the war, and the final part is the sixty years of his life after the war. The first and third parts are written in third person with the author, going from his granddad's notes and his many visits to the sites mentioned therein, trying to imagine what it must have been like before and after the war. The second part is an transfixing first-person account of the grandfather from the frontline trenches of WW I.
Martien grew up in a poor household. His father painted frescoes in churches and died young, likely from long-term exposure to the paint's chemicals. At only 13, Martien went to work in an iron foundry where he witnessed several terrible factory accidents. Of a Flanders' tannery at the turn of the 20th Century, the author describes the shops' "penetrating odor of old wood and damp sackcloth," and a "closed courtyard" that "smelled of brussel sprout trimmings, horse manure scraped off the streets and drying tobacco leaves." After working in the foundry, he went off to military school.
In the summer of 1914, after Germany's invasion of Belgium, Martien was conscripted. During the war he was seriously injured three times, going back into service after the first two. He describes his first return to a "mob of emaciated ghouls." He describes an early German offensive as "a moving wall of metal, smoke and gunfire" that "seemed to herald the last judgment." Viewing the Zeppellin for the first time, he said it was like a "dream-fish drifting silently over our heads." In all the degradation of war, he can still see the nuance of nature: "The earth warms up; after the chilly morning hours, vapour rises from the miry fields, which shine in the strange light. A blanket of lapwings ripples over the horizon." Yet, as The Guardian put it, "these 90 pages are some of the most distilled expression of unremitting horror."
In the final part, we see Martien's love and loss and pain (a discussion of which would be a sort of spoiler). In probably the most poignant parts of this darkly gorgeous novel, we get a portrait of the aging painter who had little respect for more modern painters:
"They muddle along with no respect for the laws of anatomy, don't even know how to glaze, never mix their own paint, use turpentine like water and are ignorant of the secrets of grinding your own pigments, of fine linseed oil and the blowing of siccatives."
He loved the Flemish masters, such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Eyck.
And, in Martien as a war survivor, we see:
"His grand passions were treetops, clouds and folds in fabric. In these formless forms he could let go, lose himself in a dream world of light and dark, in clouds congealed in oil paint, chiaroscuro, a world where nobody else could intrude, because something--it was hard to say what--had broken inside him."
I always leave with visual impressions after viewing masterpiece paintings on a trip to a large gallery or museum. Some strike me, take my breath away once I've had time to contemplate them, visualize them, delight in their glory. While I wouldn't go so far as to say this novel is breathtaking, I will say its beauty has entranced me over the past month, in which time I've become enamored with it as a masterful novel of war and art and love.
15 of 17 people found this review helpful
A challenge for listeners: the speaker shifts between grandfather and grandson regularly. It would be easier to pick up in print, but the only clue in the reading is the present tense of the grandfather's memoir and the past tense where the narrator fills in some of the gaps.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful