Javier Cercas

"Soldiers of Salamis"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 4, 2006)

"There are no heroes in peacetime… no living heroes."

In this unusual story of the Spanish Civil War, author Cercas experiments with the voice of his main character and with the form of this novel, which he describes as "a compressed tale except with real characters and situations, like a true tale."  The unnamed speaker, a contemporary journalist in his forties, is investigating the story of Rafael Sanchez Mazas, a "good, not great" writer of the 1930s, who, in the final days of the Civil War (1936 – 1939) escaped a firing squad and lived to play a role in Franco's Nationalist government.   

The speaker believes that "forest friends" may have helped Sanchez Mazas survive the end-of-the-war turmoil, and he becomes obsessed with locating them, identifying the Popular front soldier who chose not to reveal Sanchez Mazas's whereabouts, and learning why they behaved as they did.  As he investigates the story of Sanchez Mazas and the complex political alliances of the Civil War, the speaker realizes that he actually knows very little about this war, "not much more than I know about the battle of Salamis."
 
The speaker, who is obviously Javier Cercas himself, soon begins to expand the scope of his tale, investigating more than the facts about Sanchez Mazas and musing philosophically about the passage of time, the transcience of youth, the dubious legacy of war, and the nature of heroes.  Wartime heroes live only as long as their friends remember them, and lives and memories are short: one must seize the moment and dance a paso doble in the time available. 

The complex history of the Spanish Civil War in the first part of the novel is slow, full of unfamiliar names, places, and political alliances, but as the story of Sanchez Mazas and the people involved with him unfolds, the reader gradually becomes involved with the action and warms to the speaker's quest to learn everything he can about the incident in the forest.  The scenes near the end of the book, set in a nursing home, are full of touching and emotional realizations, conveying powerful, universal messages about war and heroes from one generation to another (and to the reader) without being didactic.

Cercas's style is honest and full of self-mockery, though some readers may be put off by his syntactically complex sentences, which are sometimes a page long.  Focusing on what it means to be a hero, the novel is a tour de force in which the reader learns as much about the creative process of author Cercas as he does about the almost forgotten author Sanchez Mazas. 
  • Amazon readers rating: from 19 reviews


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About the Author:

Javier CercasJavier Cercas was born in Ibahernando/Cáceres, Spain, in 1962. He is a novelist, short-story writer and essayist. In the 1980s he taught for two years at the University of Illinois. He has been a professor of Spanish Literature at the University of Gerona since 1989 and a regular contributor to the Catalan edition of El Páis.

Soldados de Salamina won several literary awards, has sold more than 500,000 in Spain and has been translated to fifteen languages. Anne McLean's translation won the Arts Council England Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004.

He lives in Gerona, Spain.

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