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While The Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier; Trans. Paul Vincent, book review
Redemption of war-torn memories
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Thursday 10 July 2014
In 2009, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy wrote "Last Post", which re-casts First World War history as a newsreel film in reverse. The dead arise from the mud of the trenches to resume their foreshortened lives: "If poetry could truly tell it backwards,/ then it would."
Fiction too, perhaps: Erwin Mortier's beautifully unorthodox novel of the Great War lends his narrator Helena Demont a similar vision of ruin restored and grief rewound, as the blasted houses of Flanders "crawl out of the dust with wobbly knees, street after street". Language, and memory, reorder time and can seek to redeem history.
Although it boasts some almost Sebastian Faulks-like episodes of love, grace and tenderness snatched in the shadows of destruction, While the Gods Were Sleeping is no conventional narrative of life and death on the Western Front. It filters the 1914-18 war through the mind and words of the now-aged Helena. In threads and fragments, comforted by her Moroccan carer Rachida, she surveys her pre-1914 girlhood in cosy bourgeois Belgium and reimagines her mother's family farm just over the border in France – the site of summer vacations during those golden days, and a refuge after the German invasion in August 1914.
For Mortier, one of the most accomplished of Flemish writers now, the killing grounds sit right on his doorstep. This novel creates an uncanny – and unusual – sense of mass slaughter unfolding just around the corner of everyday existence. The life of farm and town goes on while, in corpse-strewn meadows, flowers bloom and butterflies flit "as if the earth were practising revenge".
Mortier eschews blow-by-blow chronology in favour of Helena's rich web of reminiscence. As a war novel, While the Gods Were Sleeping burns on a deliberately slow fuse. The opening 100 pages paint the sweet but humdrum languor of Helena's early years, a Belgian counterpart to our Edwardian twilight of middle-class comfort and complacency. Her dreamy love of language and stories collides with the brisk practicality of her mother, a homemaker who insists that "we can't hang about hanging about" and despairs of her daughter's destiny as someone who wants to "dawdle endlessly at the gate of infinity".
Reality for Helena always lies within. When the Great War plot begins in earnest, this sovereign subjectivity means that even traumatic incidents sink into her flow of consciousness. The conflict morphs into a succession of flash-lit snapshots. Matthew Herbert, the dapper and deadpan Englishman whom the adolescent Helena falls for and will later marry, is a semi-official photographer whose profession allows our young female narrator to witness not so much the heat of battle as the ghastly tableaux left in its aftermath. Helena's war develops as a series of bravura set-pieces: the death of little Amelie from a stray shell; the hospital ordeal of Helena's gay brother Edgard; the – distinctly Faulksian – stolen erotic bliss of the couple in the wrecked mansions of Ypres.
Always, as the old woman crams notebooks with this harvest of memory, Helena aspires, via her writing, "to squeeze my foot in the door of the definitive". Spurning the big, vague picture in its transit from one densely textured close-up to another, this novel does precisely that. Although "jealous of the painters" because their art revels in "intensity" not "meaning", Helena commands – thanks to Mortier's sumptuous verbal gifts – a kaleidoscopic palette. As translator from the Flemish, Paul Vincent makes every detail shine, and every colour blaze.
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