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.