In this unusual story of the Spanish Civil War, author Cercas experiments with the voice of his main character and with the form of this novel, which he describes as "a compressed tale except with real characters and situations, like a true tale." The unnamed speaker, a contemporary journalist in his forties, is investigating the story of Rafael Sanchez Mazas, a "good, not great" writer of the 1930s, who, in the final days of the Civil War (1936 - 1939) escaped a firing squad and lived to play a role in Franco's Nationalist government. The speaker believes that "forest friends" may have helped Sanchez Mazas survive the end-of-the-war turmoil, and he becomes obsessed with locating them, identifying the Popular front soldier who chose not to reveal Sanchez Mazas's whereabouts, and learning why they behaved as they did. As he investigates the story of Sanchez Mazas and the complex political alliances of the Civil War, the speaker realizes that he actually knows very little about this war, "not much more than I know about the battle of Salamis." The speaker, who is obviously Javier Cercas himself, soon begins to expand the scope of his tale, investigating more than the verifiable facts about Sanchez Mazas and musing philosophically about the passage of time, the transcience of youth, the dubious legacy of war, and the nature of heroes. Wartime heroes live only as long as their friends remember them, and lives and memories are short: one must seize the moment and dance a paso doble in the time available. The complex history of the Spanish Civil War in the first part of the novel is slow, full of unfamiliar names, places, and political alliances, but as the story of Sanchez Mazas unfolds, the reader gradually warms to the speaker's quest to learn everything he can about the incident in the forest. The scenes near the end of the book, set in a nursing home, are full of touching and emotional realizations, conveying powerful, universal messages about war and heroes from one generation to another (and to the reader) without being didactic. Cercas's style is honest and full of self-mockery, though some readers may be put off by his syntactically complex sentences, which are sometimes a page long. Focusing on what it means to be a hero, the novel is a tour de force in which the reader learns as much about the creative process of author Cercas as he does about the almost forgotten author Sanchez Mazas. Mary Whipple
Essentially two stories in one novel. One focuses on the career of Sanchez Mazas, a minor poet and founding member of the right wing Falangist movement who managed to escape a mass shooting towards the end of war. The second from the perspective of the novelist Cercas and how he discovers the story of Mazas' amazing escape and his investigation and compilation the story.
This leaves the novel a bit disjointed and the story of Mazas probably does not warrant that much attention, as the most noteworthy aspect of it is the execution escape. Even Franco's post war government was quick to make his cabinet position redundant. The section concerning Cercas, his girlfriend, the meals he has with various interviewees and his meeting Roberto Balano is enjoyable, but doesn't really provide much of an insight to the lasting impact of the civil war.
It is not as good as Hemmingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls", despite the claims made on cover. I would also recommend Giles Tremlett's "Ghosts of Spain" for good insight on how the past has impacted on modern Spain.
A story of warfare and an extraordinary escape from a firing squad by Sanchez Mazas, and his debt to one man, who as he hid himself beneath the mud and grit of a stream, was seen by one of the men searching for him; this man could have killed him, their eyes met, and he did not shoot, instead he shouted to his fellow soldiers, "There's no one over here." And Sanchez escaped death. Javier Cercas, who came across this story, at first doubted it, but as he searched for the people who might yet be alive to confirm or deny it, he found it could well be true.
There was authentification in a rough diary kept by another man, one of the three soldiers who met up with Mazas he waited to be reunited with the Nationalist troops who were now victorious. His three compatriots, however, were bent on trying to cross the border from Spain to France as they were Republicans. As Cercas was investigating the story he found Mazas's helpers were still alive. I had to do a lot of background reading to try and sort out the extraordinarily deep confusions of the different Spanish configurations taking part in the war. Sanchez Mazas was a falangist, a notable figure, and a supporter of the Nationalists, who later came together to form the government under General Franco. Mazas was also a confirmed Fascist, a member of the falange movement which was instrumental in instigating the war. On the other side were a variety of other political idealogues, including Communists (including some Russian forces), Republicans of various different factions, Anarchists and the members of the Popular Front. In the closing moments of the war there was chaos, which is how a fascist Nationalist came to escape death and then take refuge with a local farmer, and from there make his way to safety. The people who helped him were Republican soldiers, fleeing from the Nationalists, but by then the distinction was moot.
Cercas tells Mazas' story, which is fairly unremarkable, except for the tale of the man who didn't shoot. Mazas became rich, from a bequest from a relative, at first taking part in Franco's government, but he was more interested in literature for a time, and later led a solitary life. Mazas never sought out the farmer or the Republican soldiers who helped him survive.
The book is also a story about how it came to be written. Cercas had gone as far as he could but he knew the book needed a further participant, Miralles (his surname, but that was his preferred nomenclature) and Cercas knew that unless he found Miralles, he would not finish the book. He achieved his aim after an extraordinarily laborious search. But though Cercas suspected that Miralles was the man who did not shoot, he never admitted it. The links made by Cercas are sometimes tenuous, but it makes a good story.
There are moving tributes to some of the participants, at the end of this story, including to the people who against their own interests helped Mazas to survive as the war came to an end. Much of it is unverifiable, of course, but there is no doubt that the young Republicans who helped a fascist Nationalist against their own interests, and from fellow-feeling alone, are the true heroes of this story.
I hesitate to use the words "probably the best book I have ever read" but this is probably one of the best books I have ever read. It is outstanding in every aspect -- use of language, construction, pace, insight. I have no way of ascertaining if the original Spanish is as good as the translation but I cannot believe that such a superlative book was not written superlatively well to begin with. If you think, as I did, that the middle section drags slightly - stick with it. There is a very good reason that is explained soon into the third and final part. You will be well rewarded if you do so. Occasionally you read a book where the final sentence makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. The final page of Soldiers of Salamis did that for me.
If you want to know at a sort of personal individual level about the changes in Spain at the time that the dicatator Franco was conquering the Spanish people with his mercenary army then this is a really interesting read. I am not sure how much is historical biography and how much creative fiction. The book deserves a better translation.
I rarely read books from Spanish autors but these book impressed me very much maybe Iam interesting in spanish civil war or the places the book is telling about were on my route when I travelled to Spain.