The Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas
Winner of The Independent's Foreign Fiction Prize 2004
As it proudly states on the back cover, Soldiers of Salamis "has received the following literary prizes: Premi Llibreter 2001, Premi Ciutat de Barcelona, Premio de la Critica de Chile, Premio Salambo, Premio Que Leer, Premio Extremadura, Premio Grinzane-Cavour." And, yup, it deserved them. This is a total gem. George Steiner, again proudly plastered on the back of the book: "Words such as 'haunting', 'orginal', profoundly 'humane' are used too lightly. But in regard to Javier Cercas's novel, yet more than fiction, they truly apply."
This is one of the most moving novels I have read in a long, long time. I rarely cry when reading a book but I was sobbing my way through the last ten or twenty pages of this. Soldiers is a curious book that reminded me a little of the clever involuted fictions of Juan Goytisolo but with the light touch of someone like Auster can have, but Soldiers is very much its own creature - and all the better for it.
Cercas's "more than fiction" begins with him describing, in detail, the thought processes, physical meetings, holiday with his girlfriend, and self-penned article that got him interested in the story of the (good, not great) writer, fascist and founder of the Spanish Falange, Rafael Sanchez Mazas. Cercas describes himself (or, perhaps, describes the writer of Soldiers of Salamis) as "not a good writer but not a bad journalist") who on hearing Mazas's (real) story, and writing a small article on the death of the poet Antonio Machado (described by his informant Aguirre in a way that usefully describes the novel as "a compressed tale, except with real characters and situations ... Like a true tale") starts to look into Mazas remarkable escape from a firing squad. (See Franz Borkenau's Spanish Cockpit or Hugh Thomas or Orwell for more on the Spanish Civil War; Juan Marse's Lizare Tails for a recent - and celebrated - novel.)
Mazas would often retell his story and Cercas decided, he says in his novel (as a novelist? as part of the novel?), that he would like to know more - particularly because Mazas' escape from the search party, after miraculously surviving the chaos of the mass firing squad, comes about after a young soldier sees him cowering in the bushes but does not raise the alarm and simply smiles and walks away. Who was that soldier? Can we read anything into his inscrutable gesture? And who were the "friends of the forest" who then helped shelter Mazas over the next few perilous days?
Part Two of the novel is Cercas's reconstruction of the whole myth. As readers, we know some of the details from the first part of the book, but part two, presented to us in its entirety, and itself called Soldiers of Salamis is, we are told, actually the book that Cercas wrote. In Part Three Cercas tells us that on rereading Soldiers of Salamis (curiously, also the name of the book that Mazas promised to his "friends in the forest" that he would write of their escapades) there was a hole at the centre of the narrative, something in the story that he hadn't "nailed". Cercas mentions in Part One that his friends had wondered why he was expending all his time and energy researching and writing about a fascist. And, whilst charmed by his writing, and enjoying the story, I was bothered by this too. Cercas says that a good writer is a good writer regardless of his/her politics. Whilst he suggests that Mazas' Falangist ideology was far more refined and subtle than the crude fascist dictatorship that followed the Civi War, he never forgives Mazas for helping define the country's barbarism and so helping Spain plunge into some of its darkest days. However, the hole at the centre of the book can now be partially filled as Cercas tells the story of Miralles, in the War a Communist partisan, now seeing out his final years in an old people's home under the amused watch of Sister Francoise.