Hertmans provides a richly detailed excavation of a life and a thoughtful exploration of familial memory. Not easy, but...

WAR AND TURPENTINE

Flemish author Hertmans' latest offers a grandson's often haunting reconstruction of his grandfather's life.

Shortly before his death in 1981, Urbain Martien—an artist, widower, survivor of many a brutal campaign in World War I—left his grandson, a young writer, two notebooks in which he'd recorded (mostly) his harrowing tales of his experiences as a soldier. Decades later, the grandson uses those notebooks as a way to understand, even to reinhabit, his grandfather's life. Using the methods of narrative collage—excerpts from the notebooks (possibly reconfigured), interpretations of his grandfather's paintings (both originals and copies of masters), meditations on childhood incidents he didn't fully understand at the time, decipherings of photographs (these deployed in the text in a W.G. Sebald way), archival digging, visits to various locales of importance to Urbain, and affectionate detective work—the writer evokes his grandfather's life in full: his impecunious childhood, early work at a relative's smithy and then at a foundry that left his back scarred by red-hot tailings, his asthmatic painter-father's early death, his grotesque experiences in the trenches interspersed with hospital stays during the war. Soon after, Urbain's first love was cut short by the influenza epidemic, after which he dutifully proposed to his beloved's older sister, who dutifully acquiesced, and for the next four decades they lived together in harmony and respect and ambient disappointment: his at the loss of his love, for whom his passion never abated, and hers at having to play the role of poor substitute to her long-dead sister. The book is especially eloquent and persuasive about the role that art—especially painting but also music and, by extension, narrative—played in Urbain's life and in the life of the grandson who is his visitant and scribe and portraitist. And Ghent as setting is beautifully portrayed, too.

Hertmans provides a richly detailed excavation of a life and a thoughtful exploration of familial memory. Not easy, but worth the effort.

Pub Date: Aug. 9, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87402-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2016

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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