Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 14, 2015

Soldiers of Salamis, by Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean #BookReview

Soldiers of SalamisI have two reasons for reading this book.  It’s on my shelves in the first place thanks to a great review by my GoodReads friend, K D Absolutely,  and it’s made it off my shelves and into my hands to read because I’m joining Stu from Winston’s Dad in his International Foreign Fiction Prize project, Winston’s IFFP, celebrating 25 years of the prize by reading five of the titles from previous winners and the shortlist.

We chose these five books together:

1990 Orhan Pamuk, The White Castle (translated from the Turkish by Victoria Holbrook)

1994 Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War (translated from the Vietnamese by Phanh Thanh Hao)

2004 Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamina (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean)

2007 Eva Menasse, Vienna (translated from the German by Anthea Bell)

2009 Celine Curiol, Voice Over (translated from the French by Sam Richard)

I’m reading the Cercas first while I wait for the others to arrive from Fishpond.  It’s an unusual book, not structured like any I’ve read before.  This is because it’s in three parts, narrated by the character of Javier Cercas, journalist and would-be author.  (Yes, Cercas is a character in his own novel).  The book is a blend of fact and fiction, and it’s more than a little complicated for readers unfamiliar with the complex history of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).  (If I hadn’t read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls which were catalysts for me to find out about the war, I think I would have found some of Soldiers of Salamis rather confusing.)

  • Part One: Forest Friends, purports to be a non-fiction account of the journalist Cercas’s circuitous quest to find out the facts on which to base his story;
  • Part Two: Soldiers of Salamis, purports to be the biography of Rafael Sanchez Mazas, a key instigator of the Spanish Civil War and propagandist for Franco, as told by the character Cercas distilling his research into some kind of truth; and
  • Part Three: Rendezvous in Stockton, purports to be Cercas’s conversations with the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) and his meeting with Antonio Miralles who might be the militiaman who saved the life of Mazas.

But in playing with these forms, Cercas contests the reader’s assumptions about truth.  In Forest Friends, the journalist (a failed novelist) recounts his quest to find out about Mazas, the Falangist who was said to have fled death by firing squad during the Spanish Civil War when an unidentified Republican militiaman spared his life.  This event had mythic status in Spain but the search to identify the militiaman is fraught (because both sides of the conflict would regard him as a traitor.)  Perhaps to obscure his own failings, the journalist meanders around his tale with all kinds of apparent irrelevancies.  It is the very antithesis of succinct journalese:

Three days later Figueras called me. He apologised for not having done so sooner (his voice sounded slow and distant on the phone, as if the man it belonged to were very elderly, perhaps unwell), he mentioned Aguirre, then asked me if I still wanted to talk to him.  I said yes: but arranging a date wasn’t easy.  Finally, after going through every day of the week, we decided on the following week; and after going through every bar in town (beginning with the Bistrot which Figueras didn’t know), we settled on the Núria, in the plaza Poeta Marquina, very close to the station.

There I was a week later, almost a quarter of an hour before the time we’d agreed.  I remember the afternoon very clearly because the following day I was going on holiday to Cancún, in Mexico, with a girlfriend I’d been seeing for a while (the third since my separation; the first was a colleague from the newspaper; the second, a girl who worked in a Pans and Company sandwich shop).  Her name was Conchi and her only job I know of was that of fortune-teller on the local television station; her stage name was Jasmine.  (p. 33)

He goes on to tell the reader more about this Conchi, padding out the details almost as if he is writing her biography, almost as if to confirm with these digressions his claim that he is not a very good writer.

Part Two is compelling. It traces Mazaz’s role in fomenting the war, and then his arrest by the Republicans.  Cercas brilliantly conveys the misery of the war on the ordinary people as Mazaz travels past them on his way to be shot by a firing squad:

Silently the bus crosses Barcelona, which has been changed by the terror of exodus and the wintry sky into a ghostly desolation of boarded-up windows and balconies, and wide ashen avenues with the disorderly air of an abandoned refugee camp, and traversed only, if at all, by furtive transients who gnash their teeth like wolves looking hungry and ready to flee as they pass craters in the pavement, protected from adversity and from the glacial wind only by threadbare overcoats.  Upon leaving Barcelona on the road to exile, the spectacle turns apocalyptic: an avalanche of men and women, old people and children, soldiers and civilians together, carrying clothing, mattresses and household goods, advancing laboriously with the unmistakeable trudge of the defeated or riding on carts or mules of despair, the road and ditches overflowing with people strewn intermittently with corpses of animals with their guts exposed or abandoned vehicles.  (p.88)

Equally compelling is the story of Mazaz’s survival after his unexpected reprieve from death, and how he met up with deserters from the other side who helped him until the Nationalists arrived and he was restored to a position of power in the Franco government.  But the miracle of Mazaz’s reprieve needs a hero, and in Part Three, Cercas the journalist stumbles across a most unlikely contact.  Sent to interview the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, he discovers that Bolaño knew the man most likely to have been the unidentified militiaman, and so the quest changes focus.

The style of Cercas’s storytelling forces the reader to confront ideas about truth and history.  As time goes by it becomes harder to know what the truth is: people remember the stories they’ve told rather than the actual event that they witnessed.  And in Spain, where Franco’s dictatorship told history entirely from the perspective of the victors, even the war memorials are lies, because they list only the victorious dead, not the defeated.  Conquest of any kind must be hard enough to live with, but the aftermath of a civil war where the official story negates the deaths of half the population makes any kind of reconciliation even more fraught.  The journalist Giles Trembath explored the post-Franco beginnings of the movement to investigate the past in his book Ghosts of Spain, published a couple of years after Soldiers of Salamis, but it seems as if there is still a long way to go…

BTW That cover photo is brilliant.  It’s by Robert Capa.

Author: Javier Cercas
Title: Soldiers of Salamis (Soldados de Salamina)
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2004
ISBN: 9780747568230
Source: Personal library

Availability

Fishpond: Soldiers of Salamis


Responses

  1. Strange Capacity cover he has just crept up in a book I read .Cercas is a writer that borders non fiction I feel in his fiction in fact one of his next books after this was a a non fiction novel about the attempt coup anatomy of a moment

    • Capa damm autocorrect not capacity

      • LOL auto-correct is always taking over!
        This is one of those books that is so rich in ideas – I could write reams about it in terms of thinking out loud about it.
        I think that passage about Barcelona really hit home because I’ve been there, and it’s such a beautiful city with lovely people, and it’s awful to think of its sad history…

  2. I’ve got absolutely no excuse for not having already read this already, but I’ll get there.

    • LOL That’s how I felt myself when I found that it had already been widely reviewed by the mainstream press. I think that your review when you write it will be something special because I didn’t find any reviews written from a Spanish perspective. (With the exception of one that went off on a feminist tangent about the depiction of women) all of those that I came across were written in the UK and placed the Spanish Civil War in the context of a kind of curtain-raiser for WW2…

  3. I read this book several years ago and really loved it though I was confused along the way in some ways. I have always thought I should reread it but haven’t yet. Great review of it.

    • Thanks:)
      I know what you mean, I found Part One especially confusing because of the digressions, but I was also disconcerted by the allusions to people I didn’t know of (politicians? military leaders? which side?). And I’m still not really clear about the difference between the Falangists and the Nationalists and how Mazaz came to be so influential.
      In the end, though, I don’t think it matters too much, I think the ‘novel’ is more about the way truth gets used and abused; how events can be suppressed for so long that it becomes impossible to find out what happened and we need to be honest with ourselves about that; and also about the nature of public and private heroism.
      I heard last night in the context of something else that a huge proportion of soldiers never fire at anybody with intent to kill so maybe there is a strand of humanity more powerful than we know.

  4. I’ll be interested in seeing what you write about The White Castle; I haven’t read that one of Pamuk’s and as you know I feel variable about other books of his.

  5. I’ll be interested too:) It’s his third novel (I think) but the first available in English. I loved Snow and The Museum of Innocence, but was not quite so enthusiastic about Silent House. (I *still* haven’t read My Name is Red, I must, must, must do that!!)

  6. Look forward to all these reads and reviews, nice project!

  7. I’ll be interested to see how you get on with The White Castle, too. My old book group read it and responses were rather mixed.

    • LOL The pressure’s on!

  8. I read this in the early days of my blog and remember finding it a very confusing read. I suspect it was probably the first novel I’d read which involved meta fiction and I think that threw me as well. So, all up, it wasn’t a fun reading experience.

  9. […] Alberto Méndez and Dulce Chacón, Javier Marías (on my TBR) and Javier Cercas (1962-)whose Soldiers of Salamis I have read too.  Labanyi however cautions against overdoing […]


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