Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis (Bloomsbury paperback, 2004; first published in Spanish 2001)
I intended writing a piece on this novel, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize of 2004 for Cercas and his translator, Anne McLean. But the review I set out to do turned into something else.
David Shields would approve of Cercas, who specialises in novels that blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. In Soldiers of Salamis a narrator, also called Javier Cercas, divides his story into three parts. The first and last narrate the investigation by ‘Cercas’ into the events in the life of the Falangist leader Rafael Sánchez Mazas during the Spanish Civil War. More particularly, he becomes fascinated by the story of Mazas’ facing a Republican firing squad near Banyoles in Catalunya near the end of the war, when Franco’s fascist forces had the Republicans on the run. Mazas had been arrested and sentenced at a time of turmoil and disarray in the Republican ranks as their army of disparate, feuding leftists faced certain defeat.
In the confusion of the mass shooting Mazas escapes. Hiding in the forest, he hears his enemies searching for him. Suddenly one of their number stumbles upon his hiding place. He stares Mazas in the eye, shouts to his comrades that nobody is there, then turns and leaves. Mazas is subsequently sheltered and helped by local Catalan farmers and deserters. The second section is about the life of Mazas as writer and politician before, during and after the Civil War.
The more he learns about this incident the more obsessed ‘Cercas’ becomes with discovering the identity of this mysterious, altruistic militiaman, and by his motives in letting Mazas go free. The title of the book is first alluded to in the opening pages when ‘Cercas’, recently returned to his journalistic profession after family and literary crises, interviews Mazas’ son, Ferlosio. The scene is curiously multi-layered and ambiguous; at first we’re told that Ferlosio evades his interviewer’s questions by discoursing on bizarre and obscure topics like ‘the causes of the rout of the Persian fleet in the battle of Salamis’. On the next page, however, the narrator suggests he made these details up.
What’s not clear is whether he invented the story of Mazas’ escape. Like W.G. Sebald, Cercas even inserts a grainy photo of a page of the squared notebook Mazas used as a diary, in which he recorded some of the events after his escape.
In the final section the real-life Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño plays an important part; he tells Cercas yet another story: of a Spanish Civil War veteran named Miralles, who fought for the losing Republican cause, and fled after Franco’s victory to join the French Foreign Legion. During World War II he fought heroically in campaigns in Africa and Europe. Cercas tracks him down to an old people’s home in Dijon and interviews him at length. At the novel’s end he asks Miralles if he was the militiaman who spared Mazas. His reply is as ambiguous as the rest of the stories in this book.
The point seems to be about truth v. history, stories of individual but forgotten heroes v. authentically documented chronicles of historical events. The title points towards the retellings of the Greco-Persian wars and the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, first by ‘the father of lies’, Herodotus, and subsequently by a host of other writers and historians.
Originally discredited by his near contemporaries, the historical ‘Enquiries’ of
Herodotus as ‘histor’ continued to be viewed with scepticism in the Western world until fairly recently, when the veracity or authenticity of his accounts has started to become accepted.
Aeschylus (b. c 525 BC), one of the three great Greek tragedians, participated in the battle of Marathon and was later at Salamis too; he used the Persian war as material for his play The Persians. He is also noted for turning events of history into literature, as Herodotus and Cercas do.
In Spain in 2000 the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory was founded after the efforts of a person’s quest to locate the resting place and remains of his grandfather, one of thousands who were shot by Franco’s forces and buried in unmarked graves (Lorca was one of the more famous). At the time of transition to democracy after the death of Franco a ‘pact of forgetting’ reflected a lack of national mood to investigate such war crimes. The grandiose memorial erected by Franco outside Madrid to the Fallen of the Civil War made no reference to the legions of murdered Republicans and their sympathisers. In 2007 a Law of Historical Memory was passed to try to rectify this mass act of forgetting.
Cercas is perhaps attempting to redress the balance with these works in which the people of Spain who participated in the War – not just the famous leaders, but more especially the ordinary people, the farmers like the ones who gave shelter to Mazas or the militiaman who spared him – are commemorated and their memories preserved. As Cercas says at the end of this deeply moving book, by writing about Miralles and these long-forgotten Catalan peasants their names will never die.
On looking through an old notebook as I prepared this piece I came across the following:
From my kitchen window I see my neighbour, the former vet, talking in the street with a van delivery driver. He’s holding a small package –a wrongly addressed item?
As I watch, not engaged, I see a movement beyond these men, eighty or so metres behind them at the end of the road. A dark brown and black dog. Where’s its owner? This is a much-frequented dog-walkers’ route, as the road at the end leads up to a wood popular with walkers and dogs (badgers have a sett there, too).
Then the creature stops, and I realise that it’s not a dog: it’s a fox. Much darker than usual – almost German shepherd colouring. But indisputably a fox. It’s three p.m. – bright sunshine. Cars are passing in the next street. And the fox pauses, looks our way, stares at us, then moves on up towards the wood.
Has it passed over into our world for a moment? Or have we entered its? Contiguous contact, at least.
I don’t recall this incident. The notebook entry is undated, but the next piece is dated September 2008. Did it really happen, or did I invent it?
All images reproduced here are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons, except the photo of the book cover, which is my own.