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War and Turpentine interview

War and Turpentine interview

Stefan Hertmans describes his novel War and Turpentine as an ode to the man who became the great inspiration for his own life and translator David McKay recounts the joy of getting Hertmans’ long run-on sentences just right.

This is part of our series of Man Booker International Prize 2017 longlist interviews.

Stefan Hertmans, author of War and Turpentine

What has it been like to be longlisted? 

It was a big surprise to me, and of course I am delighted that the book has won the esteem of the jury of the Man Booker International Prize. I think it relates an until now unknown aspect of the way normal Flemish people have dealt with the Great War.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel War and Turpentine?

War and Turpentine is the story of my grandfather’s life, based on the notebooks he has kept between 1963 and 1979. The story of his life is quite exceptional and moving: born in the late 19th century, he was the son of extremely poor but artistically fine people, a hero out of duty and self-respect in the Great War and the hell of the trenches in Flanders’ Fields, and in later life, as a sort of mourning and comfort for the loss of his young deceased father and later on the loss of his great passion in the Spanish flu of 1919, a copyist of the great masters of painting like Van Dyck, Velazquez and Titian. But moreover this is the story of a modest man who was an exceptional historical witness, it is the story of a traumatic wound in Flanders’ history, and an ode to the man who became the great inspiration of my own life.

Neel Mukherjee’s review in The Guardian describes War and Turpentine as ‘at the crossroads of novel, biography, autobiography and history, with inset essays, meditations, pictures.’  How did you research for your book? 

My research took several years, since first of all I had to check a lot of historical data, places and circumstances he talks about in his notebooks; then I knew the family rumours about his hidden love for this long deceased girl, his marriage with her sister after the war etc. And in the third place, I learned to read the hidden secrets in his copies of the great masters of painting (and thereby found out quite astonishing things like the Velazquez painting in Zaventem near Brussels). Moreover, Flemish literature had until now kept almost silent about the deep trauma’s left in numerous families. I gradually realised that working his memoirs into a well-documented novel filled in this particular Flemish piece in the mosaic of European history telling about the Great War.


David McKay, translator of War and Turpentine

What has it been like to be longlisted? 

For one thing, it makes me extremely curious about the other books on the longlist, so I have a lot of fascinating reading to look forward to! It also gives me an excuse to check out lots of book blogs for the latest reviews and gossip when I want a break from work. Most of all, though, it's been great to have the confirmation that my translation is really reaching people, and that the time and effort I put into it really show in the result.

What did you like most about translating War and Turpentine?

I could clearly sense Hertmans's poetic sensibility as I worked on the translation. There's a special joy in getting the cadence of one of his long run-on sentences just right, or in polishing a set piece like the scene of Urbain and his friend at the gelatine factory.

You have served as a judge for translation prizes. What was this experience like? 

For one thing, I'm well aware of the amount of work and the tough decisions involved in winnowing down a list of hundreds of books, ultimately to just one. I'm tremendously grateful to the Man Booker International Prize judges for all the time and effort they must put into their task.

Translators often grapple with tight deadlines, and there are many incentives for us to work too quickly. I learned from my experience as a judge that even talented, experienced translators sometimes give in to this temptation. The selection of War and Turpentine for the Man Booker International Prize and Best Translated Book Award longlists confirms my feeling that it's worthwhile to spend the extra time and really get the translation right.