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A homage to the losing side

Soldiers of Salamis: A Novel; Javier Cercas; Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean; Bloomsbury USA: 224 pp., $23.95

February 29, 2004|Rebecca Pawel | Rebecca Pawel is the author of "Death of a Nationalist" and "Law of Return," two novels set in Spain immediately after the civil war.

It is difficult to give "Soldiers of Salamis" by Javier Cercas the serious attention it deserves without making the novel sound ponderous and unappealing. This is a shame. The book is funny and gripping and also a tear-jerker in the best sense of the word. I laughed and cried while reading it, even though I didn't quite fall in love. The key to the novel's charm (and it is charming) is that it works on so many levels. On one level it is the story of a man without direction who finds meaning in his life; at the same time it is the history of a curious incident in the Spanish Civil War; it is also a meditation about what makes someone a hero, or a decent human being; finally, it is a story about how and why we remember the past.

In July 1936, various conservative groups in Spanish society, including large segments of the army, the landowning aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church, threw their weight behind what was intended as a quick military coup to unseat the left-wing government elected several months earlier. The Spanish government mounted an unexpectedly able defense; the quick coup turned into a civil war that lasted almost three years, devastated the country and left half a million to a million dead.

Both sides were coalitions. The government's supporters included anarchists, socialists, communists (who were interested in liquidating the preceding two groups), Basque separatists and a few simple souls who believed that trying to overthrow a legitimately elected government was unbecoming behavior. The rebels (who preferred the term "Nationalists" and in Spain are more simply known today as "the winners") included monarchists, devout Catholics unhappy with the government's anticlerical stance, people of the type who find John Ashcroft's brand of homeland security reassuring and a relatively small group of ideologues belonging to what would now be called the radical right, the Falange or Spanish Fascist Party.

Although they were later marginalized, particularly after World War II when their German and Italian allies were defeated, the Falangists were among the most active proponents of war before 1936. Their rhetoric remained integral to Spanish propaganda decades after they had lost real political influence. One of their chief propagandists was their founding ideologue, Rafael Sanchez Mazas, whose botched execution provides a focal point for "Soldiers of Salamis." At the end of the civil war, the retreating loyalist army held a mass execution of high-ranking fascist prisoners. Sanchez Mazas, unwounded by the first round of firing, fled into the surrounding woods. His captors searched for him, but his life was saved when a young soldier found him hiding in the bushes but called to his companion, "There's no one over here," then turned and left. From this moment of confrontation between two men about to switch roles between victor and vanquished, Cercas builds a deceptively simple story about the intersection of history and memory, and how the past affects the present.

"Soldiers of Salamis" is the story of a journalist in contemporary Spain who becomes fascinated with filling in the details of Sanchez Mazas' sketchy, equivocal history. As he delves into it, he finds that what he had imagined as ancient history, as remote as the Greeks' victory over the Persians at Salamis in 480 BC, is still very much within living memory. The scars of the war and the subsequent 40-year dictatorship are just below the surface of Spain's smiling image as a stable European democracy.

By war's end, the right-wing factions had united under one man, Generalisimo Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 until his death in 1975. When he died, another authoritarian government seemed certain, and many people feared another civil war. Instead, Juan Carlos I was crowned king, in accordance with Franco's wishes, and in a three-year period Spain made a peaceful transition from military dictatorship to parliamentary democracy. This was hailed at home and abroad as a model for countries wishing to overhaul their governments without violence. But the price was erasing all memory of the dictatorship: Anxious to avoid reprisals that could jeopardize the fledgling democracy, all Spanish political parties and politicians agreed to start with a blank slate, their links to the civil war hidden or downplayed.

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