Welcome to Travel Readings
Melbourne: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Books, Movies and Beyond…
Books, Movies and Beyond…: Washington, DC and New York
Books, Movies and Beyond…: Rome
Rio de Janeiro: Crimes of August (Agosto) by Rubem Fonseca
Istanbul: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Liège (Belgium): Pedigree by Georges Simenon
Books, Movies and Beyond…: Lisbon
Books, Movies and Beyond…: Cambodia
Hyde Park, Chicago: Ravelstein by Saul Bellow
Paris: Flowers of Ruin and Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano
Books, Movies and Beyond…: Naples
Books, Movies and Beyond…: Tanzania
Sri Lanka: Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
Books, Movies and Beyond… : Venice
Dublin: The Dead by James Joyce
Books, Movies and Beyond: Iran
Santa Cruz, Bolivia: The Matter of Desire (Materia del Deseo) by Edmundo Paz Soldán
Books, Movies and Beyond: Syria
Djibouti: Passage of Tears (Passage des Larmes) by Abdourahman Waberi
Books, Movies and Beyond: Armenia
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso: The Parachute Drop by Norbert Zongo
Bangkok: Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Périgord, France: The Caves of Périgord by Martin Walker
Books, Movies and Beyond: Brussels
Naples: The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
Books, Movies and Beyond: Rio de Janeiro
Tajikistan: Hurramabad by Andrei Volos
New-York: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
Israel and Palestine: To the End of the Land by David Grossman and Wild Thorns by Sahar Khalifeh
Books, Movies and Beyond: Bavaria and Southern Germany
Cape Town: Boyhood, Youth and Summertime by J.M. Coetzee
Books, Movies and Beyond: India
Blue Ridge Mountains: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Books, Movies and Beyond: Algeria
Austrian Alps: A Whole Life (Ein ganzes Leben) by Robert Seethaler
Books, Movies and Beyond: Africans in America
Zimbabwe: The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers
Books, Movies and Beyond: Colombia
Belgian Ardennes: The All Saints’ Day Lovers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Côte d’Ivoire: Aya of Yop City by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie
Japan: Haruki Murakami and Amélie Nothomb
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Rope and The Denial of Saint Peter by Charles Baudelaire
Books, Movies and Beyond: Cairo
Vancouver: What is Remembered by Alice Munro
Ghent (Belgium): War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans
Haiti: An Aroma of Coffee and Dining with the Dictator by Dany Laferrière and The Comedians by Graham Greene
Iceland: Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason
Siena and Tuscany : Il Palio delle contrade morte by Fruttero & Lucentini and The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
China : Wild Swans. Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang
Amsterdam: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Ghent (Belgium): War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

One of my first trips to Ghent had a very precise objective: I had asked my mother to take me to the St Bavo’s Cathedral to discover the Ghent Altarpiece (The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) by the van Eyck brothers. I was 14 or 15 and I had picked this Early Flemish masterpiece as the subject of a school presentation. The altarpiece was still exhibited in one of the Cathedral’s side chapel and not yet in the previous baptistery whose security has been reinforced to protect against theft. I kept a wonderful memory from this visit. It was probably one of the first times that I was so curious and focused on an art piece’s history and details.

« War and Turpentine (Oorlog en terpentijn) » by Stefan Hertmans delightfully reminded me of the association between fine painting and Ghent, this superb Flemish city at the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt rivers. The book – which I unfortunately did not read in the original Dutch – was directly inspired by notebooks left to the author by his grandfather. He waited thirty years to open them, but the result is a beautiful tryptich: a youth experienced in poverty before 1914 in a world which has now disappeared, the war and the inanity of its acts of heroism, and finally the long following years, lived in the halftone of an unaccomplished love.

The author’s great-grandfather, and the main character’s father, was a church painter, working on frescoes in many of the religious buildings scattered across the city. He was a focused and enthusiast artisan who died early, probably for having been exposed too much to the lead contained in his colors. We are at the beginning on the 20th century in a modest, pious and conscientious environment. The son, Urbain Martien, likes to go with his father to the cloisters and dining halls of the convents to see him paint on the scaffoldings. But the good fathers don’t pay well their artists and Urbain needs to leave school early to find a job. He almost loses one foot in a foundry, and does some odd jobs, including one for a tailor established on the Kouter, a large square, next to the Hôtel Falligan, a very nice rococo house which hosted and still hosts the « Société Royale Littéraire de Gand ».

 

I have been invited to some parties in this club, the gathering place for Ghent’s Francophone high society, which is known in the book and in the city in general as the « Club des Nobles ».  A quiet reminder that in Flanders, the vicissitudes of Belgium’s history, switching quickly from Napoleon’s Empire to the Kingdom of the Netherlands before proclaiming its independence – at first in French only – in 1830, led to this strange situation which remains at the heart of the Belgian linguistic dispute: for too many years, the ruling classes spoke French while the people spoke Flemish.

After those different jobs, Urbain registers at the military school. This training will allow him to play a leadership role among the other conscripts when the First World War starts and Germany invades Belgium despite its neutrality. The Belgian army is ill-prepared, and in spite of some heroic actions, it must withdraw behind the Yser river, for long years of war in the trenches. Urbain Martien behaves as a hero and often volunteers with his group. Injured and decorated several times, he is sent back to the frontlines after each convalescence in the English hospitals. Slowly but surely, however, the mud, the cold, the insalubrity, the pointless attacks, useless deaths and the haughtiness – expressed in French – by some of the officers will end up undermining the enthusiasm of this exemplary soldier.

Back from the trenches, he gets back to Ghent, his family and his mother. He also falls in love with the beautiful Maria-Emelia. The families are getting to know each other, but the Spanish Influenza takes away the fiancée before the wedding. Finally, he ends-up marrying the elder sister, Gabrielle, but this is a conventional, loveless union. The war memories and traumas and this aborted love will transform Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather into a taciturn man who seeks refuge in painting and specializes in copying the masterpieces: Rembrandt’s Man with the Golden Helmet or Vélasquez’ Venus at her Mirror (aka Rokeby Venus). It is only many years later that the grandson will realize that the face in the mirror is not an exact copy of Vélasquez’ painting, but a representation of the woman he loved and who disappeared too early.

 

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