In 1937, Sánchez -Mazas a fascist writer and main ideologist of Spanish Falange was living as a refugee in the neutral embassy of Chile at Madrid, as the rebellion has caught him in the capital, ruled by the Republicans. He tempts to escape to France in a truck, but was detected in Barcelona also in the Republican side, and imprisoned. But when troops of Franco won and advanced in 1939, Sánchez- Mazas with some dozens of less important prisoners was driven into a forest to be shot before the arrival of the nationalists. Some prisoners attempted to escape. Almost none got to survive, but Sánchez -Mazas did, because although he was effectively found by a Republican soldier in a hole, it seems that man, feeling that cruel war was over and lost, and tired of killing, refused to shot him and said his mates he hadn't seen nobody. Mazas survived during some weeks hungry and suffering intense cold, aided sometimes by the inhabitants of the rural masías. Later, he joined the Franco's troops and was named a minister, mostly honorary than real.
This is the skeleton of this novel, and these facts are true, but the narration includes more. At the beginning, the author, a journalist and writer of dubious talent -truly the own Javier Cercas if you want- hears to tell this story to a son of Sánchez - Mazas, also a real figure and excellent writer, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio. Cercas wants to know more about this strange episode, but Ferlosio, an old man something extravagant, eludes to explain more details, divagates with irony, as he has an ideology frontally opposite to his father, and refers to the soldiers of Salamina, the ancient battle when the Greeks defeated Persian fleet, as he thinks soldiers as these are capable to save mankind from disaster. The search of the identity of that mysterious, perhaps dead man that saved a prominent enemy sixty years ago is the full plot of this novel. Effectively, Sánchez- Mazas wrote a diary of these terrible days now almost lost in a library. The difficult searching of these possible soldier of Salamina has to end in France, when an eighty old year Spanish man named Miralles, ex combatant of both Spanish Civil and World War II with the Foreign Legion of general Leclerc survives in Dijon with terrible scars, now under French nationality. The author interviews that old soldier, an exceptional creation of the author and perhaps the best part of the novel, but the reader must decide if he was the man which didn't killed his enemy or not. Cercas does a reflection: "One doesn't find those things he search, but only those than life wants to give him".