Someone kind recommended this to me on Facebook, and because of the lousy archiving there I can't now see who it was. Good call. It's a very moving memoir by Hertmans of his grandfather's experiences before, during and after the first world war in Belgium. The first and last parts are presented as factual narrative, but the large middle section is a fictional reconstruction of what happened to his grandfather (though no doubt based on such documentation as is available).
Het is 1976, zomer, de zomer die in het geheugen van een generatie zou worden geprent door de uitzonderlijke warmte en droogte. Hij is oud; hij heeft de afgelopen dertien jaar aan deze memoires geschreven, met tussenpozen. Soms liet hij het schrift ook weken liggen, een enkele keer zelfs een half jaar; dat was toen hij over zijn derde kwetsuur moest schrijven, en het verraad van de officieren, zoals hij het noemde. Naast hem liggen zijn decoraties, die heeft hij vandaag weer even bovengehaald omdat de herinneringen zo levendig waren. Toevallig is met de beschrijving van het eerste weerzien met Maria ook dit tweede cahier bijna vol; de resterende lege bladzijden volstaan niet om alles weer te geven. Hij aarzelt, legt de pen neer, haalt een mapje van onder zijn bureaulegger, begint aan een brief:
Mijn dierbare Gabrielle,
als ik aan de dood van uw dierbare zuster peins....
Hij legt de pen weer neer, er komen geen woorden.
It is 1976, summer, a summer that will be etched into the memory of a generation as exceptionally hot and dry. He is old; he has spent the past thirteen years working on these memoirs, on and off. There were times when he left the notebook unopened for weeks, once for as long as six months — that was when the time came to write about his third wound, and the officers' treachery, as he called it. Beside him are his medals, which he went looking for today because his memories were so vivid. Coincidentally, his first encounter with Maria Emelia has brought him almost to the end of this second notebook; there is not enough room on the remaining pages to tell the rest of the story. He hesitates, puts down his pen, pulls a folder from under his blotter, and starts a letter:
My beloved Gabrielle,
When I contemplate the death of your beloved sister ...
He puts the pen back down; the words won't come.
It struck particularly close to home in that on his first day at war in August 1914, young Urbain actually marches with his fellow-troopers from his home in the west of the country through our home village and ends up spending a few nights in the village further east where my daughter now lives. I scratched my head about the geography - it is stated that he marched through Steenokkerzeel, then Oud-Heverlee, then Leuven/Louvain, which is not a very direct route:
But if we bear in mind that the E40 was not built until the late 1960s, and that the other main roads would have been full of refugees fleeing westwards, it actually makes sense that to reach Leuven the troops would have made a southern detour. When they reached the Statiestraat, now the Bondgenotenlaan (the long street going at just north of three o'clock from the centre of Leuven) it was completely empty. It must have been a very tough march. Google says that the whole march from Dendermonde to Hakendover, given the route taken through Londerzeel, Steenokkerzeel, Oud-Heverlee and Leuven, would take almost 17 hours on foot today. (Over an hour is added by the detour to Oud-Heverlee, but as I said I think the press of traffic on the main roads would have been pretty severe.)
Apart from that local colour, the first part on impoverished Flemish life pre-war is heartfelt, the general portrayal in the second part of how Flemish soldiers were treated by francophone officers during the horrible events of the war gives one some understanding of how the war experience led to the growth of a Flemish consciousness (the officers consistently mispronounce Urbain's surname, Martien, to end "-shan" rather than "-teen"), and the third part recounting Urbain's subsequent love life (he becomes entangled sequentially with two sisters, and basically marries the wrong one) is very moving as well.
There's also food for thought in the close Belgian relationship with England, Liverpool figuring particularly strongly - a reservoir of historic goodwill which has been stupidly squandered by the current British government.
Well worth getting.