Javier Cercas’s new novel, ‘Lord of All the Dead’, is as preoccupied with the Spanish Civil War, the nature of heroism, and the distortions of history as his most famous, ‘Soldiers of Salamis’, says.
What makes a man into a hero? This was the question that Javier Cercas tried to answer in Soldiers of Salamis. The factual novel, written with a light touch and a wry wit, sold a million copies worldwide, and won several major prizes.
In the 18 years since its publication, Cercas has gone from being a well-respected journalist and novelist, with a column in El País, to an international literary figure.
Soldiers of Salamis is a classic war novel. Like his new novel, Lord of All the Dead, it will change the way you look at armed conflict, not just the Spanish Civil War. Both are translated by the award-winning Canadian, Anne McClean.
Like many of his contemporaries, Javier Cercas (57) has still not come to terms with the troubled legacy of the Spanish Civil War. While fought between 1936 and 1939, for many the war did not really end until the death of Franco, in 1978.
Cercas reckons that the Spanish Civil War has become as remote in one generation as the story of the soldiers who fought the Persian fleet at Salamis, in 480BC — hence his novel’s title.
Cercas first wrote about the civil war curious as to the actions of a Republican soldier who spared the life of Rafael Sánchez Mazas, a minor Falangist politician and theorist. Sánchez Mazas escapes a Republican firing squad and runs into a nearby wood, only to come face to face with a Republican solider, who looks him in the eye, and, for reasons unknown, lets him escape.
Sixty years later, Cercas, on hearing this story from Sánchez Mazas’ son, realises that to make sense of this generous gesture, he must find the unknown soldier.
The novel is narrated by a character called Javier Cercas, whom I came to think of as ‘Javier Cercas’, a figure so self-deprecating and likable that the reader is immediately on his side. ‘Javier Cercas’ decides that the book will not be a novel, but a true story, centred on Sánchez Mazas’ escape from the firing squad. As one of his friends tells him: ‘history is written by the victor; legends are woven by the people. Writers fantasise. Only death is certain.’
Hence the avoidance of what he calls “the literato” — the novelist’s tendency to embellish and fantasise. He uses local connections in Girona to trace the descendants of the men who helped Sánchez Matas to survive in the forest, listens to their stories, and diligently follows up other leads. Under the impression that the book is finished, he returns to his job as a journalist.
An interview with the locally-based Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, a survivor of the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende, in Chile, in 1973, turns into a discussion about heroism.
Bolaño tells Cercas a story about a man he met while working on a campsite on the Costa Brava. This provides the missing link that raises Soldiers of Salamis from a good war novel to a great one.
So what led Cercas to write another book about the Civil War? Lord of All the Dead is an even more personal story, tracing the history of his great uncle, Manuel Mena, who died, aged 19, from wounds received at the Battle of the Ebro. Like many of his contemporaries, whose sympathies are socialist and liberal, Cercas had to face the fact that his ancestor, his mother’s favourite uncle, died fighting on the ‘wrong’ side, an enthusiastic supporter of Franco.
In both of these books, Javier Cercas assures the reader that he is not writing a novel; that is to say, he is not making things up.
In Lord of All the Dead, he several times resorts to a post-modernist riff on how he could write the story if he chose fiction rather than facts, thus giving himself the freedom of fiction, while appearing to spurn it: ‘If I were a literato and this were a piece of fiction, I could fantasise about what happened; I would be authorised to do so.
“If I were a literato, I could, for example, imagine Manuel Mena waking his men… I could imagine his fear and I could imagine him fearless…’
This is disingenuous: he is most certainly writing a work of fiction, albeit based on a true story. Since Soldiers of Salamis, many contemporary writers have been working on the borderline between documentary/memoir and fiction. The consensus among critics and judges of literary prizes can be summed up as ,‘if you read it as you would read a novel, then that is what it is.’
To apply the same principle to the writing: if it is written like a novel, with characters that come alive, vibrant conversations and memorable incidents, then it is a novel.
This includes the author’s life, and the dilemmas facing him. It is Cercas’ mother’s increasing frailty that makes him realise that he can no longer avoid writing his great-uncle’s story.
Both novels highlight the tangled web that we call ‘the Spanish Civil War.’ It was not a simple matter of being pro- or anti-Franco, Republican or fascist: it is only with hindsight that these labels apply. The reality was far more complex.
In the course of his research, Cercas realised how many mistakes have been made by historians, accidentally attributing the wrong date or location to events hastily reconstructed from inadequate records. In fact, the only dull passages in the new novel are those consisting of close analysis of such ‘facts.’
But we should take this less-than-riveting overload of information in the spirit in which it is intended: as factual evidence of the chaotic material from which ‘history’ is painstakingly, but often incorrectly, written.
The main concern in both Cercas’ novels is to understand the bigger picture, the things that apply to all wars: what motivates people to go and fight for a cause? How do memory and the passage of time distort the truth of what happened? Do those making the ultimate sacrifice feel that it is worthwhile, or have they lost all illusion of being a hero by dying for their people?
These questions are so universal that they feature in the Iliad and the Odyssey, with the Greek belief in Kalos Thanatos, ‘a beautiful death’, which represents the culmination of a beautiful life. This is exemplified by Achilles, who dies a hero at his youthful peak, in contrast to Odysseus, who survived many adventures to reach old age. But when Odysseus visits Achilles in the House of the Dead, Achilles tells him that he would rather be alive as the slave of a penniless labourer then reign here below, as “lord of all the dead”.
Javier Cercas concludes that his great-uncle, 19-year-old Manuel Mena, in his two years at the front, went from being an idealistic young officer to a disillusioned, melancholy young man, aware that he was going to die for nothing.
’Only death is certain’, as his friend had said at the start of his quest. It is a sad conclusion to a fine and stimulating meditation on the nature of heroism, war, and self-sacrifice.