09 December 2007

A mix of the real and the imagined

I’m ashamed to say that, apart from an abridged version of Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’, poems and plays of Federico Garcia Lorca (during college), and (much later) some works of Camilo Jose Cela and Manuel Rivas, I’ve taken little interest in Spanish literature. Here, by ‘Spanish literature’ I mean literature from Spain, with European flavour, which excludes (Spanish) literature from Latin America.

Of course, I’ve read Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and Graham Greene recounting their experiences in Spain, particularly about the Spanish Civil War and General Franco’s Spain. But, besides these tales, and some of Greene’s post-Franco observations, my knowledge of the Spanish Civil War and post-Civil War Spain is next to zero. Hence, it was with some trepidation that I picked up Javier Cercas’ 2001 novel ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ and read it.

I say ‘trepidation’ because, thanks to Hemingway, Orwell and Greene, I’ve had an Anglo-American observer’s point of view of Spain and the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). I did not know what to expect from a Spanish writer giving a Spanish insider’s ‘true tale’ view of what, historically, I knew nothing (and still know very little) of. The book ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ mentions many real-life people – in fact, it is based on a historical figure from that period – and was a little confusing for a neophyte like me.

Fortunately, the book (I have a Bloomsbury 2004 paperback edition) had two important sections at the back which helped. First, (Anne McLean’s) Translator’s Afterword, which gave a short political history of Spain during the Civil War. And second, Notes, which was a glossary of important people and terms from that period. These two sections are worth reading and consulting from time to time, and help tremendously in understanding the context of the tale.

The reason I categorise ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ as a ‘book’ and not a novel is because Cercas’ tale is not entirely fictional. It has such a clever mix of the real and the imagined that, at times, it seems like a true account of what may have happened during the Spanish Civil War (the past) and what Cercas himself may have gone through during his research for the book (the present context). Alas, some of all this is fabricated by the author and is, therefore, fiction. Cercas, apparently, labels it as a ‘true tale’.

‘Soldiers of Salamis’ is an account of Rafael Sanchez Mazas, a real-life character in Spain’s history. Sanchez Mazas was a fascist who played a lead role in the Falangist Movement and, later, became a minister in General Franco’s government. The story here is about Sanchez Mazas’ capture by the Republican Army during the Civil War, his failed execution by a firing squad, his miraculous escape when a Republican militiaman finds him and lets him live, his hiding in the forest under the protection of ‘forest friends’, his rescue when Franco’s army drives away the Republicans, his memory of this entire episode during his ministry in Franco’s government, and his compassion thereafter.

This tale forms the centre – the middle, really – of the book and is flanked by two important sections. The first section of the book is the story of a journalist/author, also named Cercas, who researches and writes this tale. The last section of the book is about this journalist’s pursuit of and meeting with an aged, but colourful, character called Miralles, who may have been the Republican militiaman who had spared Rafael Sanchez Mazas’ life and let him escape (after the firing squad fracas) during the Spanish Civil War… thereby changing Spain’s history of forever.

But ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ is much more than this. The book raises several questions on war, history, the recording of history, heroes and heroism, courage, loyalty, integrity and human compassion. But most of all, it is a discussion on truth, the quest for the truth, and how we remember our past. It is a discussion on how personal narratives in history, if left unchallenged or unverified, can be (mis)taken as the truth.

In a review of this book in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin mentions that Javier Cercas had described ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ not as a novel but as a ‘true tale’, ‘cut from the cloth of reality, concocted out of true events and characters’. Perhaps, ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ is exactly that. For those who enjoy historical fiction, this is a perfect story.

[Citation: ‘Boyd Tonkin salutes a commanding novel of war’s myths and memories’, The Independent on Sunday, 14 June 2003]

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