Major history and minor humans
The First World War is the main theme of Erwin Mortier’s new novel Godenslaap (Divine Sleep), its magnitude and impact taking form in the recollections jarred down daily by the elderly Helena in her notebooks. Helena’s father was a prosperous Flemish merchant, and her mother a Walloon from a rich family in French Flanders. She has fond memories of summer holidays at her uncle’s large country house in France before the war, which is where, when war breaks out, she is sent by her father with her mother and siblings, in the hope that this will prevent her brother Edgar from volunteering for military service. No one can predict that an important part of the war will be fought in that part of the country.
Erwin Mortier splendidly elaborates the contrast in character between the enterprising Helena and her respectable, matronly mother. She is not enthusiastic about Helena’s relationship with Matthew, a British Army photographer (who will later become her husband). Helena visits front-line trenches with him, but then their ways part. Surprisingly, it is through the mother that Helena meets him again when she goes with her to visit the wounded Edgar at the hospital where Matthew happens to be lodging. That same evening, the hospital comes into the firing line and the two women witness scenes of indescribable horror.
How can the personal dislocation of war be recorded so as not to fade or diminish? In her memoirs, Helena wishes to master words in order to describe the indescribable, but she puts this attempt into perspective: ‘can we ever do anything else, I ask myself, but tell fairy stories burdened with footnotes?’
This ‘anything else’ is what Erwin Mortier convincingly achieves in Godenslaap. First he paints a broad, stately, nostalgic fresco of ‘the entire propriety of good citizenship and norms.’ During the war, this world collapses in ruin and most characters are concerned only with trying to remain human in inhuman circumstances. Nothing spectacular happens in the story; Mortier is more concerned with animating such concepts as war, history and the past, imaginatively, with great empathy and engagement, with a mixture of melancholy, qualification and resignation. Its theme complements the novels of Ian McEwan and Philippe Claudel, while its monumental, yet subtly style it reminiscent of Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf.