The spanish novelist has spent his career upending the liberal pieties of the post-Franco generationby Evelyn Toynton / June 19, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Spanish writer Javier Cercas made his reputation in 2001 with Soldiers of Salamis. The novel begins as a perfect postmodernist shaggy-dog story, in which Cercas skilfully muddles fact and fiction, casting doubt on the reliability of narrative, of truth itself. But by the end, the book steps away from postmodernism to reveal itself as a passionate affirmation of old-fashioned humane values. While Cercas has devoted his literary career to exploring moral ambiguity, he has also affirmed the possibility of heroism wherever it may be found—and not always among those who are seen as the good guys.
The novel’s protagonist is a failed writer (to whom Cercas gives his own name) who sets out to find the (fictitious) man who, in the closing days of the Spanish Civil War, spared the life of Rafael Sánchez Mazaz, one of the key architects of Spanish fascism. When Cercas-the-narrator finally tracks down the battered but fiercely alive ex-communist soldier he believes was Mazaz’s saviour, the book becomes an elegy for all the forgotten men who fought for what they believed in, not just those on the Republican side. As Jeremy Treglown says in his excellent recent book Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936, Cercas “dramatises… the connectedness of opposed sides in the Civil War.” Soldiers of Salamis brought this truth home to many Spaniards and to an international audience.