The spanish novelist has spent his career upending the liberal pieties of the post-Franco generationby Evelyn Toynton / June 19, 2014 / Leave a comment
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.
Cercas went on to explore the theme further in his non-fiction novel, The Anatomy of a Moment (2009), which also upends the leftist certainties of his generation. The “moment” of the title occurred in 1981, when a group of armed right-wing militants burst into the Spanish parliament, hoping to overthrow the fragile new democracy by force. Only three men stood up to them, rather than dropping to the floor, cowering. One was a member of the Spanish fascist party, the Falange; another had been one of Franco’s generals; and the third was a leader of the Communists. As Cercas writes: “Who could have predicted that the change from dictatorship to democracy in Spain would not be plotted by the democratic parties but by the Falangists and the communists, irreconcilable enemies of democracy and each other’s irreconciliable enemies during three years of war and 40 postwar years?”
In between those two books came a novel, The Speed of Light (2005), about another country’s war. It was also another book about trying to write…