Javier Cercas was born in 1962, the right time perhaps to experience not only the transition to democracy in Spain, but the overwhelming influence of what became known as el boom, the rise of the South American novel, the fame of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Borges, and others. His novel Soldiers of Salamis has some of the playful, conversational tone of García Márquez, and a concern too with memory and forgetting. It is a story about a story, constantly alert to its own constructs. But it is also a deeply serious novel about the abiding legacy of the civil war in a time when, officially, it had been forgotten. In Spain, Soldiers of Salamis has sold half a million copies; it has done so because it manages to enact in its pages the same process of reconciliation which Spain has been striving for, while reminding readers, with considerable tact and some wryness, that the shadow of the civil war is a shadow they live with, and that what creates this shadow continues, whether they like it or not, to obscure the light.
The novel is set in the province of Girona (or Gerona in Spanish), in whose capital Cercas lives. The city of Girona, on one side of the river, is exquisitely beautiful, and the atmosphere is provincial, quiet, and deeply conservative. The names of the streets throughout Catalonia are now solely in Catalan, and most public life is conducted through Catalan only. To work as a teacher or a public servant, one must have a fluent command of the language. Girona has always been a Catalan-speaking city, but over the last twenty years, the language has been official, almost to the exclusion of Spanish. Cercas speaks Catalan also, but he deliberately wrote his book in Spanish, connecting him not only to a larger audience, but, more important perhaps, to a longer and richer tradition for a writer interested in mixing the playful and the dead serious.
The narrator, like many before him, is a loser, a journalist turned failed novelist who has gone back, cynical and exhausted, to his old newspaper. His wife has left him, and he is amusing himself with a TV fortuneteller, who believes that he should write a book about García Lorca. He ignores her bright suggestion. His days of tilting at windmills are long over. One day in 1999, he is asked to write an article commemorating the death of the poet Antonio Machado, who died in Collioure, over the French border, at the end of the Spanish civil war. Machado’s elegy for García Lorca is included in The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse (1980):
They killed Federico
as the first light pricked.
The murderous band
dared not look on his face.
The poem ends with the line: “the crime took place in Granáda…his Granáda.” Sixty years after the death of Machado and sixty-three years after the death of Lorca, that elegiac, declamatory tone had disappeared from Spanish rhetoric; no one writes poems like Machado’s elegy anymore, and even journalists, like our narrator, when asked to write an article for the anniversary of a civil war death, will be careful not to use words such as “crime” or “murderous.” In fact, our narrator goes further, and finds a poet from the civil war who does not have an entry in The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse because he fought on the other side. This poet, Sánchez Mazas, was not a victim of the war, as were Machado, Lorca, and Miguel Hernández; he was one of those whose words in fact created the war, and he himself survived, after some adventures, to become a minister in Franco’s first government.
The article in Soldiers of Salamis, written in 1999, reflects then what I heard Maragall, the Socialist politician, say in 1988. In the matter of commemoration in a democratic Spain, in which the sons and daughters of the Franco side are living peacefully and harmlessly, the other side will have to be included. It is something which the Germans and the Italians have barely, perhaps only secretly and half-heartedly, considered; in those two countries, it is fraught with danger. In Spain, on the other hand, the danger comes from not remembering at all.
The narrator is alert to this climate of silence in which the name Sánchez Mazas was merely a faint whisper:
To me he was no more than a mist-shrouded name, just one more of the many Falangist politicians and writers that the last years of Spanish history had hastily buried, as if the gravediggers feared they weren’t entirely dead.
Writing the story of Sánchez Mazas’s fate in the civil war as a parallel to that of Machado allowed the narrator to imagine
that the symmetry and contrast between these two terrible events [the death of Machado and the attempted execution of Sánchez Mazas]—a kind of chiasmus of history—was perhaps not coincidental and that, if I could manage to get across the substance of each within the same article, their strange parallelism might perhaps endow them with a new meaning.
There were years after the civil war when the story of Antonio Machado would have attracted a novelist. “Of all the stories contained in that history,” our narrator in Soldiers of Salamis writes in his newspaper article, “one of the saddest is no doubt Machado’s, because it ends badly.” Machado, born in 1875, arrived in Barcelona with his mother and his brother in 1938 as Franco’s forces were closing in. Four days before Franco arrived, they made their way toward France in a convoy, accompanied by the Catalan poet Carles Riba, who would soon become one of the great elegists for the world they were losing. They crossed the border on foot in the rain. They had no luggage and no money. A month later Machado died of natural causes, but his death was indirectly caused by the exhaustion of making his way in winter and by foot across the border without food or money; his mother survived him by three days. In the pocket of his overcoat, his brother found what must have been the sole first line of Machado’s last poem: “Those blue days, this childhood sun.”
The stark tragedy and waste of this, the suffering, the indignity, all of these themes do not interest our novelist at the end of the twentieth century in Girona. A novel dramatizing these aspects of the civil war could not be easily written now, or would not be published. It is not only that the public wishes to forget these events in all their stark tragedy, but a story telling the bravery of the Loyalists and the evil of the fascists, a dramatization of the suffering of the former versus the mindless triumph of the latter, would seem to some too simple, too old-fashioned; and to others too obvious to be of any interest. It would, as Cercas says in another context, be “pointless to add to the tragedy of the war the tale of the tragedy of the war.” Our novelist, on the other hand, who writes about “the chiasmus of history,” not only knows that the story of the Falangist poet is more interesting than the story of Machado, but allows himself to become obsessed by it.
Sánchez Mazas’s is not a story of tragedy, although there is tragedy all around it, but of the irony of history, the quality of mercy and the complexity of each historical moment. The past here is allowed beauty and the possibility of redemption. It is also allowed to be deceptive. Cercas achieves this without sentimentality, using tricks learned from the South American masters and the Spanish comic tradition, managing a tactful narrative ease which induces the reader to accept the idea that the story of the saving of the Falangist poet Sánchez Mazas belongs to us as much as the story of Antonio Machado. And more so perhaps, because of its ironic twists and unlikely turns, its unpredictability, and its clear-eyed aura of reconciliation.
Rafael Sánchez Mazas, who had worked as a correspondent in fascist Italy and been impressed by the regime there, was one of the founders of the Falangist movement, which provided brains and ideology to match Franco’s brawn and brutality. In his early forties when the civil war broke out, Sánchez Mazas was trapped in Madrid and sought refuge in the Chilean embassy, where he spent most of the war. On trying to escape to safety, he was captured and taken to Barcelona. He, too, made his way toward the border as Franco’s army approached, but under arrest and with a very small chance of survival. He faced a firing squad, but the bullets missed him, and he made his way, running, into a nearby wood where he was pursued and finally discovered by a single Republican soldier who was asked by his superiors if he had found anyone. The soldier replied: “There is no one over here.” The Falangist poet and propagandist was looked after then by three young Catalan men, all Republicans, in the forest until the fascists came and released him.
The above has elements of a fairy story, a fantasy civil war in which good luck and much kindness prevailed. It is hard not to see the icy shadow crossing this narrative of the two poets, Machado and Riba, accompanied by Machado’s mother, who must have been in her eighties, and his brother, yoked together by violence, walking wearily to their doom or their exile in these same weeks. In their work, both poets were always on the verge of succumbing to the glorious and ineffable mystery of things. “What has become of that singing heart of mine?” Machado had asked in one of his poems. “For death I no longer need interpreters,” Riba would later write. But the story of the doomed poets will work only in the newspaper article. Soon, the story of Sánchez Mazas and those who rescued him will take over. Detective work, playful asides, much speculation, changes of tone, history lessons, games between fact and fiction, and odd, disconcerting correspondences between the past and the present will mean that Soldiers of Salamis has protected itself from its readers’ antipathy to linear and predictable accounts of the suffering of the civil war.
As soon as our narrator publishes his article, it becomes clear that two of the three young Catalans who looked after Sánchez Mazas in the forest sixty years earlier are still alive now. This story of how they saved the Falangist and how he, in turn, when they were imprisoned after the war, secured their release, has become their version of the war. It is a story they like telling, and they have no problem meeting our narrator. They do not know that they will end up, as a bizarre piece of verisimilitude, playing themselves in David Trueba’s film version of the novel, two old men with country Catalan accents, whose words have to be subtitled into Spanish for the film.
Like a good loser, our narrator writes and rewrites his book, but it is a disaster. He has to go back to work, and, while conducting a set of interviews with outsiders who live in the province of Girona, he meets Roberto Bolaño. Bolaño, the Chilean novelist who died last year at the age of forty-nine, was in real life the most interesting South American writer of his generation. In real life too as in the novel, he had moved to live in the province of Girona. In the novel, Bolaño is ill; in real life, and two years after the novel appears, he will die of his illness. The interviewer in the novel is called Javier Cercas, who has published two novels called The Motive and The Tenant, as he had in real life. The novelists, all four of them—Cercas and his homonymous counterpart, and Bolaño and his, all loved fictional games and using real characters in their novels—must have had a fine old time together.
Bolaño tells Cercas a story which echoes with something our narrator has already been told about a tiny event in those late days of the civil war, when a Republican soldier sang a song and did a dance. Bolaño remembers an old soldier whom he knew at a holiday camp site who sang the same song and did the same dance. Now we are in the world of pure invention or pure reality, but either way, Cercas manages to convince us that he should search for that old soldier who will hold the key to the saving of Sánchez Mazas, because he, in all unlikelihood, is also the soldier who insisted that there was no one there when he was sent to search for the escaped Sánchez Mazas. Could he be still alive? Where is he? Will he talk?
This old soldier, when he finally appears, is called Miralles, and he is perhaps Cercas’s best invention after his own self-invention in this novel. Miralles fought in the civil war and then in Africa and Europe in the Second World War, at the end of which he was badly injured. “You really think,” he asks, “that any of your newspaper’s readers are going to be interested in a story that happened sixty years ago?”
Miralles refuses to be identified either as a hero or as a central figure in a neat plot, but he is as concerned as the novelist with ideas of memory and forgetting. The issue for him in his long, savage, and clear-eyed speech at the end of the book is the same as that for Spanish historians such as Gimeno and Espinosa. How do you remember the war while forgetting the dead of the war, the untold atrocities, the single shots? Changing the names of the streets, putting new heroes on pedestals means nothing to the ordinary dead, just as those who benefit from political change never want to know about them. “Nobody remembers them, you know?” he tells the narrator.
Nobody. Nobody even remembers why they died, why they didn’t have a wife and children and a sunny room; nobody remembers, least of all, those they fought for. There’s no lousy street in any lousy town in any fucking country named after any of them, nor will there ever be. Understand? You understand, don’t you? Oh, but I remember, I do remember, I remember them all, Lela and Joan and Gabi and Odena and Pipo and Brugada and Gudayol, I don’t know why I do but I do, not a single day goes by that I don’t think of them.
Miralles and finally the novelist come to see their names as sacred, or as close to sacred as anything can be, which may not, in Miralles’s vision, be that close at all. It is part of the importance of Cercas’s book for Spain now, and the world outside Spain too, that such issues have been so playfully and powerfully argued and dramatized.