My parents recently sent me a copy of a book they’d both read and loved: Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis. The title alludes to the battle of Salamis, a key turning point in the Greco-Persian war, while the book itself focuses on a rather less decisive moment in Spanish history on its way to grappling with the peculiarly mixed legacy of Franco and his dictatorship in contemporary Spain.
In case you don’t remember, the usual narrative of the Spanish Civil War is that the good and idealistic Republican forces lost out to the brutalities of the Falange, but fortunately after Franco’s death Spain returned to being a more free society. However, the more we learn about what actually went down, the more it seems that there was no side of angels. The Republicans probably had better arts and literature, but there were plenty of poets, even good ones, on the fascist side. The Republican forces slaughtered priests and suspected collaborators just as readily as the Nationalists slaughtered communists and dissidents. (To be clear, the fascist dictatorship was definitely bad. It’s just that the alternative would likely have been a similar stretch of terrible communist-affiliated dictatorship rather than a beacon of freedom and democracy).
Nothing is simple, in other words, especially with the civil war and the dictatorship still in the very recent past. That’s why we get a novel like this one.
The narrator is a moderately successful journalist and failed novelist, who winds up researching and writing a nonfiction book about a single odd incident toward the end of the Civil War. One of the intellectual forbears of the Falange is in a prisoner of war camp; as his captors evacuate and flee, they plan to kill all the prisoners. By chance, this one escapes. A soldier finds him hiding in a ditch, but lets him go anyway. Post-war, the escaped prisoner is lauded as a hero by Franco, gets a ministry position, pulls strings to help dissidents go free, and then lives out his years as an increasingly irrelevant figure in the national political discourse. The Republican executioner who found him and let him go remains anonymous.
The narrator despises fascists reflexively but finds himself drawn to this particular character and the people who surrounded him, some of whom are still alive. Each interview and archival visit clarifies some parts of the story and obscures others, and the reader is left to untangle layer upon layer of historical confusion.
It’s a striking contrast with the historical novels of Hillary Mantel. She also covers confused and contentious historical territory, but she does it in a single frame: She picks a narrative and carries the reader along. Her prefaces acknowledge that historical interpretations are imprecise, and that in the interest of the tale she’s chosen the ones that she feels best.
Cercas doesn’t do that at all. With Soldiers of Salamis he has written a novel about the writing of a nonfiction book about historical incidents, in which nobody is quite as noble or as evil or as anything as anyone wants or thinks. So we have a temporal, emotional, and political muddle of frequently terrible ideals mediated mostly by their incompetent or inconsistent application. That muddle is framed and reframed and reframed again inside different stories and perspectives. It’s exhausting, but it’s also a pretty good reflection of the way the world works.
I talked with my parents about it over email and their comments are pretty insightful, so I’ll just quote them here. My father says he “found the multiple layers of narrator (novelist, journalist, horny loser, historical novel, history) somewhat frustrating while I was reading it, but in retrospect it added a lot of depth.” My mother says she really appreciated “the way Cercas allows us to see the aleatory nature of goodness and evil and even heroism.”
If you’re a student of 20th century history or of Spain, or want a clearer look at the unclear currents of war, Javier Cercas is definitely worth checking out.
(And no, there’s really no better word than “aleatory” in this context, is there?)