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When is a novel not a novel?
on 18 October 2007
I question whether 'Soldiers of Salamis' is actually a novel. Essentially it is an investigation - a factual account of the research into an historic event by a disillusioned journalist, his bitter-sweet relationship (both sexual and otherwise) with his girlfriend, detailed accounts, complete with their physical attributes, of people he interviewed, together with descriptions of what was eaten and drunk, in which restaurants they were eating and what the view was from the window etc. He also describes his frustrations in not getting enough information during these meetings about the life and near death of his subject - Rafael Sanchez Mazas - co-founder of the Falangist Party, which was responsible for the destruction of a flawed, yet legitimate, democracy, and the visitation on Spain of an horrific civil war. [It was also responsible for the rise of General Franco, who later outflanked the intellectuals (like Mazas) to create an unpleasant dictatorship that held the development of Spain back for three decades.]
So Javier Cercas' investigation was entirely factual - as was its subject matter. The only 'non-factual' (i.e. fictitious) element to the book was his speculation about why the mysterious Soldier X spared Mazas' life. My question, therefore, is 'Why call this a novel'? Could it have been that the marketing of a non-fiction book would prove less lucrative, because, in reality, there's barely enough 'speculation' in it even to sustain a piece of 'flash-fiction'?
The 'firing squad' episode is described in the Foreword, is repeated about a third of the way through and then, again, at the three-quarter point, and the repetition is irritating. I had the impression (in fact, the author actually confirms this) that he would never have finished the book had it not been for the chance encounter with a man (Morales, or Mirales) who had been in the outfit that had tried to execute Mazas. Although he keeps us in suspense about whether he would turn out to be Soldier X, I found this episode to be really poignant, and he brought this old man to life quite beautifully.
I think the author might have made much more of the relationships that Mazas developed with the 'forest friends', the young Republican deserters who saved him from a lingering death in the woods. That would then have created the basis for a real novel. However, since Mazas never met them after the war, although he did help them in other ways, too much is recorded about his relationship to Franco and his government for a work of fiction to be created. To be fair to the author, he made a point of telling his friends, and his employers, that he was writing a true story, but, somehere along the way he (or his publishers) changed his mind.
This has been described in a pro book review as 'the greatest novel to come out of the Civil War'. Come on ... that's just hype. One national newspaper review had it 'reducing Hemingway's 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' to a picnic in the park' (or words to that effect). Pull the other! What it does, though, is give an account from the less acceptable side of the lines (albeit from a liberal perspective) which is quite rare, and it casts some light on a very murky, Spanish post-war era, although it adds very little information about the Civil War that you can't get in a good history book or in Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia'.
Well worth the read, though, even if it leaves you puzzling about what constitutes a novel.