Review: Soldiers of Salamis
By Javier Cercas
Bloomsbury Publishing plc
Translated by Anne McLean
A fascist intellectual, held prisoner by Republican troops in the bitter last days of the Spanish Civil War, is marched out together with 50 other detainees to be machine gunned. Managing to escape the killing ground, he is spared re-capture and execution by a soldier of the Republic who finds him in the woods, shares a moment of enigmatic eye contact with him and lets him escape. Decades later, in post-Franco Spain, a journalist and unsuccessful novelist becomes fascinated with the story of this odd moment of human mercy and tries to identify the Republican soldier. The story of his search, and the “true tale” that resulted from his search are the subjects of a sophisticated and intellectually complex post-modernist novel by Spanish writer Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis. Cercas has given us one of the most impressive political novels to appear in some time, and at the same time extended the long lover’s quarrel with straightforward prose narrative that has been such an important element in the development of post-modernist writing.
The cynical old Hollywood maxim, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union” often seems to apply to the world of prose fiction as well as commercial movies. Attempts to yoke the wild horses of the novel to any political agenda fail dismally more often than not, as the inglorious history of “socialist realism” in the middle of the last century so amply illustrates.
The novel is by its nature a subversive and humanizing form, but it yields very unsatisfactory results if the author falls prey to the temptations of rhetoric and the correct line. Nevertheless, the same underlying structures of power and privilege, truth telling and dissimulation support both progressive politics and prose narrative. The serious author can no more ignore the politics that inform her subjects’ lives than she can successfully apply the broad-brush strokes of well-intentioned propaganda to her narrative. Dealing with important issues rarely results in accomplished, moving fiction; the outcome is far too often either over-broad rhetoric and cardboard characters on the one hand or apolitical nihilism on the other.
However, when a novelist can find the proper mix of politics and character, issues and plot twists, the novel comes into its own as a comic and epic form, and the reader is richly rewarded. This has seldom been so true as it is of Soldiers of Salamis. Ably translated by Anne McLean, this book is as wonderful achievement with riches to offer the reader primarily interested in history and issues as well as the reader who looks first for abiding human truth and moving, poignant narrative. The reader who wants it all will find that Cercas is one of the few writers who can deliver on seemingly contradictory fronts- insights into both character and history, the pleasures of supple, quietly eloquent prose and the challenges of nuanced, complicated political thought, the joys of a singing text and the austere delights afforded by expert deployment of a century’s worth of modernist and post-modernist tropes, the rich bass line of tradition and the thrilling soprano line of experiments in prose and narrative framing. This is an altogether remarkable and supremely intelligent book that is highly recommended for all who care about politics and art.
The book opens with Cercas, who places himself as a character in the novel and thereby poses the ongoing question of how much of what is reported is transcribed from what we laughably call reality and how much is the product of his imagination, first hearing the story of Sanchez Mazas and his mysterious escape from the firing squad, and unspools a long shaggy dog story of his attempts to track down the facts and the (perhaps) surviving Republican soldier who let the Falangist escape. Along the way, it delivers a profound meditation on the nature of mercy and heroism, the role of intellectuals in creating fascism (a theme made horrifyingly timely by the current role in the US and other Western nations of various golems of free market neo conservatism) and the elusive nature of truth. The tone is gentle, and, as my astute pal Don Larventz observed, almost caressing, and the reader is drawn into the puzzles about history and motivation that obsess the character and (one presumes) the author Cercas. Narrative is partial and broken up, and in the best post modernist tradition, the text is subverted and fragmented, reflecting our collective and sorrowful understanding these days of how uncertain reality or the attempt to portray it in fiction can be. And yet, without abandoning its melancholy and sophisticated skepticism about how much fiction can do justice to the chaos of reality or the tectonic shifts of politics, the novel’s final passages, in which Cercas spends time with an enigmatic old man who may or may not have been the one to spare Sanchez Mazas, shifts subtly into a more self assured and traditional novelist’s voice and portrays the tender conversations between the old man and the middle aged author as they muse on the old soldier’s years of battle in the Civil War and WWII, and thereby on all the questions about heroism, politics and narrative lucidity that have been posed by the book’s earlier passages. In the final pages, the Cercas character, who has fussed throughout the book with the question of what he had to say and how to say it, finds, as he travels away from his time with the old soldier, the proper form for his novel and the narrative voice that will convey his difficult themes. It is an accomplished and eloquent set piece that retroactively illuminates much of what has gone before, transforming the experience of reading the novel. I was left breathless with both aesthetic and political pleasure at the end of Soldiers of Salamis, and I have been urging friends to read it ever since. So, friend reader, go out and find this book.