For most of human history, each generation’s lot in life was basically the same as the generation before it. Most people worked to produce food; unlike today, with less than 2% of the U.S. population working on farms, 90% or more had to. People made their own clothes. Intercity commerce was relatively unimportant (in economic terms, that is – obviously the spice and slave trades had hugely violent impacts upon the victimized people’s lives).
Then came the industrial era. Production was mechanized. Far more food, and shirts, and chemicals, and whatever else could be produced than ever before. Technology became so advanced that which tools were being used to do work was often more important than which people were wielding them. Humans, in some ways, no longer seemed so special. They could be seen as mechanized components of production, just like gears and cogs and furnaces. Their very selves could be seen as meat machines, assemblages of grime and guts that exist to do a job.
And those meat machines could fall to bits, as was demonstrated viscerally in the first World War. Huge numbers of young men marched out to wallow in trenches before dying amidst the swarms of flies. Bullets or bombs might wrench limbs from their bodies, poison gas might leave their dead skin crackled and black.
The main action of Stefan Hertmans’s elegiac War & Turpentine occurs just before and during these war years. The book combines a lovely meditation on time and memory with a reconstruction of Hertmans’s grandfather’s life up until the end of the war.
Hertmans was given a set of notebooks with his grandfather Urbain’s memoirs but waited decades before opening them. Hertman is finally spurred to action by the approaching centennial of the “Great War.” When he finally reads the notebooks, he finds himself puzzling through his own memories, revisiting details from his childhood in light of Urbain’s experiences. This is difficult, naturally. When Hertmans thinks of any of his older relatives,
Their dark forms are larger than life, because memories like that grow along with your body, so that adults from our childhood always resemble an extinct race of old gods, still towering over us.
How can those gods be reconciled with the small, scared people whom his grandfather wrote of in his memoirs? But Hertmans has to try – and we are lucky that he did, because War & Turpentine builds toward a beautiful story of duty and lost love. Urbain’s memoirs end shortly after the war, and Hertmans realizes that, ever since his true love died in the ensuing flu epidemic, his grandfather was stuck. Time, for him, had partially stopped. Hertmans describes his own first cigarette, purloined from a drawer of his grandfather’s dressing table. The cigarette, yellowed and strange, left him intensely nauseous. As an adult, Hertmans finally learns that the stolen cigarette must have been fifty years old:
In his memoirs, I read about the silver box of cigarettes given to him by the mysterious Mrs. Lamb in Windermere, and I realized that he had held onto them all those years, like a fetish, without touching them – to the best of my knowledge, he never smoked. My little sister liked to wrap herself in a long scarf in those days – doubtless the scarf he had received as a gift from the same woman when he had to return to the front, a scarf that had stretched to mythical proportions in his stories, growing a little longer with each telling. Meanwhile, he let the actual scarf fall apart in an old drawer. That too says something about how he dealt with a past that would not let him go.
The crux of War & Turpentine comes early, though, in a memory from when Urbain was a young boy. Before the horror, the years of deprivation, or the final loss of love. The tone of the book changes irrevocably with a visit to the local gelatin factory: a truth about the industrial world is revealed that, once seen, cannot be unseen.
It wasn’t until they [Urbain and a companion] turned around that they saw the large pile in the courtyard, and froze. Animal heads of all shapes and sizes lay in the center of the filthy yard, heaped into a pyramid. The heads of horses, cows, sheep, and pigs shown there in a viscous, spreading mass, freshly dumped from the cart. A swarm of fat flies, so dense and infernal they looked like a gleaming blue mist, droned around the heads with their huge extinguished eyes like staring boils, their bleeding eyes, their sunken eyes with dead gazes and blind pupils where maggots squirmed.
Only then did the boys realize that something around their feet was moving, shifting, sliding to and fro. Legions of white maggots that had fallen out of the heads were crawling over the floor in a thick layer. … A black bull head rolled into one leg of the table, and the white maggots immediately went for it, like an invincible army sent from another world to cover everything and gorge themselves till nothing was left. This was a total eclipse in broad daylight, a dark substance out of which something unnameable was pressed, refuse transformed into refuse, death into sludge.
Just as the boys were about to go back outside, they were stopped by the cousin [of Urbain’s companion], who clapped Urbain on the shoulder and shouted, “It’s a sight to see, ain’t it!”
Gagging at the rancid smell of the hand that had touched his shirt, Urbain nodded, a meek sheep that has stopped bleating and is willing to do anything if somebody will only make this stop. But it did not stop. The cousin dragged them along to the back of the building, where the thudding of heads in tubs and the dry, rhythmic banging of the cleavers was drowned out by the sound of grinding wheels and the whipping of huge leather driving belts. Here the boiled sludge was poured into tanks where it sloshed and eddied like bubbling magma as it drained away into a hole. What ran out of the rusty, filth-encrusted spout at the other end was – the cousin shouted in their ears – the basis for geletin.
The [cousin], who was apparently the factory foreman, made a sweeping gesture toward the courtyard, where sparse grass grew between the rocks, and animal hides awaited tanning in another building. A large horse cart hurtled past, filled with barrels. They’re taking that wonderful stuff to a processing plant, he said, where they filter it and take care of the smell. From there, it goes to every corner of the country, where they use it in all sorts of products. It’s in all the fancy lotions for French-speaking ladies. It’s what they rub on their noses and their dainty little cheeks. He snickered. It’s in your bottle of gum arabic, and it’s in the candies you suck on like manna from heaven. It’s in the jam your mother makes for you; she spreads it on your sandwich, you’re none the wiser. You’re full of the stuff that comes pissing and dribbling out of those heads, dear boys, you’re full of that rot, but you don’t know it, because they can deoderize and filter and disinfect it until you no longer realize it’s death you’re sucking into your hungry little mouths, it’s this sludge that those ladies of fashion are rubbing into their tender bosoms – fine bubbles of saliva sprayed from his mouth – it’s all one and the same thing, but nobody knows. Good thing, too, otherwise the world would stop turning.
Beneath all the beauty in the world, there is pain and death and filth. After all, flowers sparkling in the morning light, or the form of a well-proportioned nude woman, can only seem beautiful when perceived by the bloody fat inside our skulls. Our brains, capable of creating such wonder, are made of the same mean muck ground up in the gelatin factory. Unless we all abstain, the horrors in the factory will never stop. And there is no way to change the fact that we ourselves are made of the same fragile, fallible stuff.
This knowledge resonates brutally with the descriptions of combat. Hertmans narrates these scenes elegantly, but I’d like to end this essay with a quotation from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 instead. In this scene, Yossarian has just finished bandaging a gaping wound through his tailgunner’s thigh. It’s severe – a piece of flack passed all the way through, destroying muscle and bone – but Yossarian thinks his companion, Snowden, will survive.
But Snowden kept shaking his head and pointed at last, with just the barest motion of his chin, down toward his armpit. Yossarian bent forward to peer and saw a strangely colored stain seeping through the coveralls just above the armhole of Snowden’s flak suit. Yossarian felt his heart stop, then pound so violently he found it difficult to breathe. Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit. Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out. A chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out. Yossarian screamed a second time and squeezed both hands over his eyes. His teeth were chattering in horror. He forced himself to look again. Here was God’s plenty, all right, he thought bitterly as he stared – liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch. Yossarian hated stewed tomatoes and turned away dizzily and began to vomit, clutching his burning throat. The tail gunner woke up while Yossarian was vomiting, saw him, and fainted again. Yossarian was limp with exhaustion, pain and despair when he finished. He turned back weakly to Snowden, whose breath had grown softer and more rapid, and whose face had grown paler. He wondered how in the world to begin to save him.
“I’m cold,” Snowden whimpered. “I’m cold.”
“There, there,” Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a voice too low to be heard. “There, there.”
Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.
“I’m cold,” Snowden said. “I’m cold.”
“There, there,” said Yossarian. “There, there.” He pulled the rip cord of Snowden’s parachute and covered his body with the white nylon sheets.