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A homage to the losing side

Rebecca Pawel is the author of "Death of a Nationalist" and "Law of Return," two novels set in Spain immediately after the civil war.

It is difficult to give “Soldiers of Salamis” by Javier Cercas the serious attention it deserves without making the novel sound ponderous and unappealing. This is a shame. The book is funny and gripping and also a tear-jerker in the best sense of the word. I laughed and cried while reading it, even though I didn’t quite fall in love. The key to the novel’s charm (and it is charming) is that it works on so many levels. On one level it is the story of a man without direction who finds meaning in his life; at the same time it is the history of a curious incident in the Spanish Civil War; it is also a meditation about what makes someone a hero, or a decent human being; finally, it is a story about how and why we remember the past.

In July 1936, various conservative groups in Spanish society, including large segments of the army, the landowning aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church, threw their weight behind what was intended as a quick military coup to unseat the left-wing government elected several months earlier. The Spanish government mounted an unexpectedly able defense; the quick coup turned into a civil war that lasted almost three years, devastated the country and left half a million to a million dead.

Both sides were coalitions. The government’s supporters included anarchists, socialists, communists (who were interested in liquidating the preceding two groups), Basque separatists and a few simple souls who believed that trying to overthrow a legitimately elected government was unbecoming behavior. The rebels (who preferred the term “Nationalists” and in Spain are more simply known today as “the winners”) included monarchists, devout Catholics unhappy with the government’s anticlerical stance, people of the type who find John Ashcroft’s brand of homeland security reassuring and a relatively small group of ideologues belonging to what would now be called the radical right, the Falange or Spanish Fascist Party.

Although they were later marginalized, particularly after World War II when their German and Italian allies were defeated, the Falangists were among the most active proponents of war before 1936. Their rhetoric remained integral to Spanish propaganda decades after they had lost real political influence. One of their chief propagandists was their founding ideologue, Rafael Sanchez Mazas, whose botched execution provides a focal point for “Soldiers of Salamis.” At the end of the civil war, the retreating loyalist army held a mass execution of high-ranking fascist prisoners. Sanchez Mazas, unwounded by the first round of firing, fled into the surrounding woods. His captors searched for him, but his life was saved when a young soldier found him hiding in the bushes but called to his companion, “There’s no one over here,” then turned and left. From this moment of confrontation between two men about to switch roles between victor and vanquished, Cercas builds a deceptively simple story about the intersection of history and memory, and how the past affects the present.

“Soldiers of Salamis” is the story of a journalist in contemporary Spain who becomes fascinated with filling in the details of Sanchez Mazas’ sketchy, equivocal history. As he delves into it, he finds that what he had imagined as ancient history, as remote as the Greeks’ victory over the Persians at Salamis in 480 BC, is still very much within living memory. The scars of the war and the subsequent 40-year dictatorship are just below the surface of Spain’s smiling image as a stable European democracy.

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By war’s end, the right-wing factions had united under one man, Generalisimo Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 until his death in 1975. When he died, another authoritarian government seemed certain, and many people feared another civil war. Instead, Juan Carlos I was crowned king, in accordance with Franco’s wishes, and in a three-year period Spain made a peaceful transition from military dictatorship to parliamentary democracy. This was hailed at home and abroad as a model for countries wishing to overhaul their governments without violence. But the price was erasing all memory of the dictatorship: Anxious to avoid reprisals that could jeopardize the fledgling democracy, all Spanish political parties and politicians agreed to start with a blank slate, their links to the civil war hidden or downplayed.

This amnesia was no hardship for the literal and figurative descendants of the winners. Reminiscences of the war became merely conversation pieces. In “Soldiers,” this attitude is exemplified by the son of Sanchez Mazas, novelist Rafael Sanchez Ferlosio, who casually tells the story of his father’s miraculous escape from a firing squad to the journalist narrator during an interview at a cafe. The narrator remembers the anecdote because he has recently lost his own father, and it occurs to him that sons talk about their fathers in an effort to keep their memories alive. Both Sanchez Ferlosio and the narrator understand the story in a purely personal light, as a son’s tribute to a father, almost devoid of political context.

However, the narrator’s grief leads him to pick at the story and attempt to fill in the details. As he searches for people who knew Sanchez Mazas, he meets the people who helped the high-ranking fascist survive after his escape until Franco’s final victory. These men, peasants who spent the last months of the war hiding in the woods as deserters from the loyalist army, are alive and glad to talk to him. They are on the losing side of the war, and no one else is interested in their stories. Spain’s tacit pacto de olvido, or “agreement to forget,” has silenced them.

Their voicelessness is underlined in the book’s second section, the narrator’s biography of Sanchez Mazas. The casual humor and snappy dialogue give way to a ponderous evaluation of the relative merits of Sanchez Mazas’ poetry and the evils of his political opinions. If the novel has a fault, it is that Sanchez Mazas’ biography feels too long. But the dry pedantry serves as a subtle reminder that the official discourse of even literary history still belongs to the winners in Spain. It is also a brilliant contrast to the last section of the book, which has the pace and plotting of the best thrillers as well as a good deal of humor and tremendous emotional impact.

Here the story reverts to the first person. The narrator realizes that his biography of Sanchez Mazas is dull, lacking in balance and interest. As his working-class girlfriend points out, he needs to get the loser’s take on the story: Why did the anonymous soldier spare Sanchez Mazas’ life? A chance encounter gives a nebulous clue to the soldier’s possible identity, and the narrator is once more off on a quest. Persistence and luck lead him to France, where he meets Miralles, an old Catalan refugee who spent his youth fighting fascism, first in Spain during the civil war, then in Africa and Europe with the Free French. Miralles, in his 80s and semi-paralyzed by a stroke, is enjoying the rewards of his heroism: a small pension from the French government and a retirement home in Dijon, run by the church he detested in his youth.

At first Miralles upholds the blank-slate doctrine of the transition: “Those stories don’t interest anyone any more, not even those of us who lived through them,” he tells the narrator. “Someone decided they had to be forgotten and ... they were probably right.” But unlike Sanchez Ferlosio, Miralles has paid a steep price for his amnesia. He has seen the companions of his youth fall one by one, knowing that “there’s no lousy street in any lousy town in any ... country named after any of them, nor will there ever be.” The reader remembers a neutral comment at the end of Sanchez Mazas’ biography some 60 pages earlier: “A street in Bilbao bears his name.” The winners’ slates have been cleaned with an eraser, but the losers’ have been wiped clean with a wet sponge.

Despite the tragedies of his life, Miralles is joyously and defiantly alive. His belief that life is the greatest good a person can have makes us and the narrator suspect that he may have been the soldier who spared Sanchez Mazas, although he insists that “if anybody deserved to be shot back then, Sanchez Mazas did.”

Whether or not the old man was the anonymous soldier, the narrator finds in Miralles the hero his book has been lacking, and to some extent the father he lost at the novel’s beginning. Since Miralles is one of the few fictional characters in a book that insists throughout that it is a “true tale,” it is ironic that readers’ reactions to the novel as endearing or tragic (or stilted or unconvincing) reflect their impressions of Miralles. The pretense of verisimilitude may be more striking to Spanish readers, who are acquainted with the principal places and characters in the story. But Cercas takes his most striking risk by naming the narrator of the novel “Javier Cercas,” thus conflating author and narrator.

The author says his editor told him “Soldiers of Salamis” would have only 5,000 readers, all over age 60. It has sold more than 500,000 copies in Spanish and been made into an equally well-received movie. The novel’s success in France, Germany and England suggests that it strikes a chord in any country or individual with ghosts to face.


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