Tim Marchman on Javer Cercas' "Soldiers of Salamis"

04.22.2004 | Tim Marchman | Literature
This article first appeared in the New York Sun.

“Soldiers of Salamis”
By Javier Cercas
Bloomsbury, 210 pages, $23.95

In 1939, as Nationalists advance on a Republican position at Collell during the last weeks of fighting in the Spanish Civil War, prominent fascist prisoners are lined up in front of machine guns to be shot. One of them, Rafael Sanchez Mazas, escapes into a forest clearing and covers himself over with leaves and mud. A poet, founder of the Falange party, and one of the chief ideologues of Spanish fascism, he will go on to serve as a minister in Franco’s government only because a young Republican soldier, seeing him hidden there in the clearing, spares his life.

This moment of recognition and mercy is, as the germ of a novel, a fine beginning. Javier Cercas wrings it of all its potential, and the unexpected ends to which he puts it make “Soldiers of Salamis” a finer exploration of the intersection of fiction and history than anything since Leonid Tsypkin’s “Summer in Baden-Baden.”

The two books share a hybrid form also used by W.G. Sebald, necessitated by the inability of pure fiction to confront the origins and consequences of totalitarianism.This form is mainly confined to the scrupulous description of historically verifiable facts; clear acts of writerly elaboration are quarantined. The process by which the narrator, explicitly identified with the author, comes to his material is given weight equal to the description of these facts.

At the heart of Mr. Cercas’s book is a beautifully balanced novella, which traces the life of the fascist Mazas from his birth into a family of wealthy intellectuals in 1894 to his lonely, exhausted death in 1966. This section hinges on a thoroughly realized imagining of his escape from execution, his wandering through the forest, and the mercy shown him by the rural family and three Republican deserters who keep him alive. It telescopes the mad irrationality of the war and its broader context into a single life, and that life into the single moment when Mazas found his life in the hands of a haunted soldier. Mr. Cercas’s chosen method is able to show how this moment defined the quivering poet/propagandist. An evocation of the appeal of fascism to an intellectual of Mazas’s generation, an understanding of what was essentially prophetic in it, requires a sort of neutrality of which pure fiction is probably incapable. A writer must in some sense be writing factually to write of one of the prime instigators of the Spanish Civil War a passage as generous as this:

During the time the war was incubating, the watchwords Sanchez Mazas disseminated still possessed a gleaming suggestion of modernity. … At the time Jose Antonio was very fond of quoting a phrase of Oswald Spengler’s; that at the eleventh hour it had always been a squad of soldiers that had saved civilization. At that time the young Falangists felt they were that squad of soldiers. They knew (or believed they knew) that their families slept an innocent sleep of bourgeois beatitude, not knowing that a wave of impunity and egalitarian barbarism was going to wake them suddenly with a tremendous clamour of catastrophe. … They felt they were heroes.

The true tragedy, of course, is that high ideals brought a terrible war and a miserable, crude, and oppressive government that stifled Spain for generations. Mr. Cercas holds that in proper perspective, but also shows that, to the man who formulated these ideals, the tragedy was that the war did not bring the enlightened despotism of poets. It is a remarkable accomplishment. How Mr. Cercas (or his narrative proxy) came to investigate and reconstruct this bit of history is the subject of the first third of the book. What is best is the last third, in which his attempts to grasp the meaning of what he was written improbably lead him to an octogenarian veteran named Miralles.This man fought all across Spain and at Collell; from there, he went over the border, only to be drafted into a detachment of the French Foreign Legion that fell under the first commander to rebel against Vichy. With him Miralles trooped across 3,200 miles of desert to fight in Libya and back to fight Rommel, and then to France, where he entered Paris within an hour of its liberation. Miralles cannot possibly be a real man. He is everything Mazas is not, and it is on him as much as on the conscience of men of Mr. Cercas’s generation that the fitting legacy of Europe’s bloody century rests:

I thought: No one will remember him when he’s dead. I saw Miralles again, walking with the flag of the Free French across the infinite, burning sands of Libya, walking towards the Murzuk oasis while people were walking across this French plaza and across all the plazas in Europe going about their business, not knowing that their fate and the fate of the civilization they’d abdicated responsibility for depended on Miralles walking onwards, ever onwards…. What Jose Antonio and Sanchez Mazas could never imagine was that neither they nor anyone like them could ever form part of that eleventh-hour squad; on the contrary it would be formed by four Moors, a black guy, and a Catalan
lathe operator who happened to be there by chance or luck, and who would have died laughing if anyone had told him he was saving us all.

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