A mass act of forgetting: Javier Cercas, ‘Soldiers of Salamis’

Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis (Bloomsbury paperback, 2004; first published in Spanish 2001)

Cercas SalamisI 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.

Cercas in Madrid, 2009

Cercas in Madrid, 2009

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.

Sketch of Mazas by Daniel Vázquez Díaz

Sketch of Mazas by Daniel Vázquez Díaz

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 Battle of Thermopylae

The Battle of Thermopylae


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

William Rainey, Death of the Persian General at Thermopylae: Stapleton Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library, Plutarch's Lives for Boys and Girls, n.d.

William Rainey, Death of the Persian General at Thermopylae: Stapleton Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library, Plutarch’s Lives for Boys and Girls, n.d.

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.

Bust of Aeschylus Capitoline Museums, Rome

Bust of Aeschylus: Capitoline Museums, Rome


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.

‘Dangerous salvations’: Elizabeth Hardwick, ‘Sleepless Nights’ considered.

This will have to be a hastily written post – I have a plane to catch.

I just finished reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s 1979 novel, Sleepless Nights, reissued in their usual handsome designs by NYRB classics in 2001, and still in print.

I enjoyed this book in parts, rather like I do a fruit salad with prunes in it (I hate prunes).  There are phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs that are beautiful, lyrical, poetic and haunting:

I like to remember the patience of old spinsters, some that looked like sea captains with their clear blue eyes, hair of soft, snowy whiteness, dazzling cheerfulness.  Solitary music teachers, themselves bred on toil, leading the young by way of pain and discipline to their own honorable impasse, teaching in that way the scales of disappointment.

The rhythms, imagery and sounds of that paragraph are delightful.  But I feel a bit like Caliban on his island, hearing these enchanting noises, but unsure if they signify anything, whether they just disarm and waylay.

She’s good on cities: ‘This is New York, with its graves next to its banks.’ Elsewhere, equally good on the inhabitants:

How pleasant the rooms were, how comforting the distresses of New Yorkers, their insomnias filled with words, their patient exegesis of surprising terrors.

This is prose with a capacity to surprise and reward; she constantly yokes unlikely adjectives with nouns (‘the violent perfume’, ‘dangerous salvations’).  But she can also write powerfully lucid, poignant reportage:

A woman’s city, New York.  The bag ladies sit in their rags, hugging their load of rubbish so closely it forms a part of their own bodies.  Head, wrapped in an old piece of flannel, peers out from the rubbish of a spotted melon.  Pitiful, swollen sores drip red next to the bag of tomatoes.

Even here the opening minor sentence (Hardwick is perhaps excessively fond of these) resonates strangely (tough irony) with what follows.  And there’s that strange definite article: why ‘the’ bag of tomatoes?  It makes for a disconcerting precision in the portrait.

As with Renata Adler’s Speedboat, which I posted about here a while ago, this is a fragmentary, plotless novel.  More coherent than Speedboat, Sleepless Nights is nevertheless a collage of loosely connected or disconnected vignettes.  There are sections that build contiguously for a page or two, and we follow a character through those pages, but they then usually disappear, never to return.  There’s a touching section about Billy Holliday.

Hardwick 001 There’s no linear, chronological sequence, and occasionally there’s an interpolated date, as in a diary entry (but cryptic, usually just a year: ‘1950’), but again with no apparent sequence.  There are pieces set out as letters, addressed to characters whose identity remains a mystery.

The narrator is a woman who shares the author’s name, looking back at her life: the ‘parade of people, the shifting background of place’ as the dustjacket blurb has it.  She writes apparently autobiographically about friends and family in New York City, childhood in Kentucky and subsequent visits there, and many other places Hardwick lived in real life, including Canada, Boston, Maine and a year spent in Amsterdam.

We know that Hardwick (1916-2007) had a tempestuous married life between 1949 and 1972 with her serially unfaithful husband Robert Lowell, but whether he is the ‘Michael’, or other men identified in the narrative only by their initials, is unclear.  She does touch intermittently on the themes of marriage, solitude and separation.  As Geoffrey O’Brien says in his Introduction to this edition, however, Hardwick said in an interview at the time of this book’s first publication that much of it is ‘made up’.

I probably need to read this again to do it more justice.  In parts this novel is wonderful, but I frequently found myself having to re-read pages, and still the words failed to abide.  Now I feel in need of a novel with a plot, connected characters and less self-consciously poetic style.  I’m taking Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr on my trip up-country (have to fly: trains to England cut off by storm damage to the rail tracks) – not sure this is a sensible follow-up.

Dérive part II: birds, beasts, explorers in Africa

Busy couple of weeks, hence the  posting hiatus.  My last post was about the wonderful collection of digital images made available by the British Library, via their Digital Scholarship Blog.  I came across a wonderful illustrated Portuguese book: Expedição portugueza ao Muatiânvua. Descripção da viagem á Mussumba do Muatiânvua … Edição illustrada por H. Casanova. [With plates, including portraits and maps.] vol. 1-3
Author: DIAS DE CARVALHO, Henrique Augusto (Lisboa, 1890); there’s an online facsimile edition available online at the Internet Archive site.

I focused on images of birds.  Today I shall finish with a few more lovely bird pictures, then move on to animals, people and places.

Let’s start with a few more birds whose images appealed:


Online edition p. 277

Online edition p. 277

First is Coracias Spatulata, or the Racket-tailed Roller.  Largely found in Angola, but also in other southern and central African countries.

There are some lovely public domain photographs of this bird:

The Secretary Bird, Sagittarius serpentarius, has a raptor’s body rather like an eagle’s, but with crane-like legs:

Called 'Secretario' in the 1890 book illustration

Called ‘Secretario’ in the 1890 book illustration





A Wikimedia Commons photo provides a slightly less dishevelled-looking portrait:

300px-Sagittarius_serpentarius_Sekretär wikiIt’s an unusual predator, in that it hunts terrestrially: it walks about the sub-Saharan savannah, flushing its prey out with its stamping.  Previously thought to subsist largely on snakes, hence the Latin name, it’s now known to eat all kinds of small mammals, reptiles and invertebrates.

Aca I’ve selected just a couple of animals, largely on the grounds that they resembled nothing I’d ever seen (in the 1890 illustrations): this is called ‘Aca’ in the book, but looks like a pangolin (or scaly pangolin) to me.  Named from a Malay word meaning ‘something that rolls up’ (in a ball, not arrives unexpectedly) – they’re found in tropical Africa and Asia – they have sharp claws for digging up termite nests.

Cavallo-marinho p26 The text calls this next creature ‘cavallo-marinho’.

No idea what this is.

Here it is on the online edition p. 400:



Here’s an image, from p. 671, of a lizard (or maybe a chameleon) eating an insect:

p671 lizard eats fly







And something called a Pelumba in Carvalho’s text, but all I can find is that’s the name of a place in Moxico region, Angola; this little chap looks like some kind of sloth to me.







Dias de Carvalho, photo from the BN de Portugal album

Dias de Carvalho, photo from the BN de Portugal album

These engravings can be compared with the extraordinary photos in an online album found here, taken from his expedition 1884-88, from the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. Here is Carvalho himself (1843-1909), who explored extensively in Africa, ending up in Lunda in 1895, where he ended up as governor.




I’ll finish this second part of the dérive with three typical portraits from BL site, compared with one from the online edition of the book:

Cacuata Tambu

Cacuata Tambu



'Major', from p. 291

‘Major’, from p. 291

O chefe p 475 online

O chefe p 475 online edition

O sub-chefe p89

O sub-chefe p89