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BOOK REVIEW

A written mural of love in troubled times

Guernica A Novel Dave Boling Bloomsbury: 368 pp., $26

November 13, 2008|Irene Wanner | Wanner has written for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Times and High Country News.

On April 26, 1937, Miguel Navarro kissed his wife, Miren, and baby daughter, Catalina, goodbye before setting out for the hills hoping to catch a few fish or rabbits -- something to provide a bit of meat. Miren and Catalina headed for the Monday market in the Spanish town of Guernica to shop for any food that might still be available in the hard times of worsening civil war. The little Basque family planned to join Miren's father and mother later for dinner before Miren and Cat departed by train the next day to seek temporary housing in the relative safety of Bilbao.

But that same morning, Lt. Col. Wolfram von Richthofen of the German Luftwaffe's Condor Legion rose before dawn and waited impatiently for reconnaissance pilots to return with weather reports. He was gratified to learn the forecast for the afternoon was ideal. Visibility should be excellent for his intended serial bombings of Guernica, a Basque crossroads town he considered of minor importance except as a place to practice what would eventually develop into blitzkrieg tactics during World War II.

What happened on that spring day, of course, was the infamous massacre of perhaps as many as 1,600 innocent civilians. Dave Boling, a sports columnist for the Tacoma News Tribune who traveled with the Seattle Seahawks football team as he wrote "Guernica," was inspired to write this story, his first novel, after he married a Basque woman and became fascinated by the atrocities her culture and relatives had suffered.

Basques had sought independence or autonomy from Spain for a long time. As European countries were choosing up sides during the Spanish Civil War, which began after a military coup against the left-leaning government in 1936, life grew increasingly restrictive and difficult. Boling provides a pensive portrait in this multi-generational family saga that spans almost a half century, beginning in 1893 and ending during the early years of World War II.

His "Guernica" is already being compared to "Corelli's Mandolin" and "The English Patient," two other powerful love stories poised against a backdrop of combat. Boling too endows his fiction with memorable characters -- the indomitable, one-armed patriarch, Justo; his brother, a priest, Father Xabier, whose role in the confessional allows him to pass along secrets; the lovely, blind soap maker, Alaia Aldecoa, a confidant of Miren's; "Dodo" Navarro, who smuggles both goods and people across the French border -- as well as real figures such as Von Richthofen and Pablo Picasso, who created the monumental painting that commemorated the tragic day.

Fog of history

Boling's ambitious, omniscient narrative allows him to move from place to place, layering and interweaving his stories as years pass. This approach is a mixed blessing, for the episodes in Von Richthofen's and Picasso's points of view are awkward interruptions whose facts might have been more elegantly provided by news reports or talk among the other characters.

By chance, I happened to mention Guernica to half a dozen friends while reading the book. I was shocked that not a single one knew of the event or of Picasso's mural. Clearly, Guernica is losing the horrible connotations of war place names such as Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima. In fact, the novel provides only vague historical context, and readers will have to look elsewhere for a rundown of European history of the period and the issues that landed Basques in such horrific circumstances.

However, Boling's long chapter set on the day of the bombing is compelling. It occurs near the novel's halfway point, leaving the remaining pages to tackle various heartbreaking outcomes in many damaged lives.

A smooth transition

Without giving away the casualty list, I can note a new subplot that begins when Basque orphans are shipped to England. And once again, Boling crafts a first-class romance, this time between a British pilot, Charles Swan, and a relief worker, Annie Bingham. But their story, while full of marvelous suspense and adventure, depends on several coincidences that eventually turn out both predictable and too convenient. Coincidence happens in real life, yes, but as a device in fiction, it frequently fails.

What doesn't fail, though, is this book. It has many marks of a skilled journalist finding his way into the subtly different prose demands of fiction. That Boling's first effort has brought so many notable characters to life in such realistic settings is praiseworthy.

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