Soldiers of Salamis: dulce bellum inexpertis

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The Knife first visited Spain, to teach English, in 1982. Only seven years after the death of General Franco, who had maintained the dictatorship virtually to his death. Back then memories of life under the generalissimo were fresh, and it had the feel of a country playing catch up with the rest of Europe. I remember reconnaisance trips before the school went to the beach, to ensure it was an area without the relatively new phenomenon of topless foreign sunbathers.

These days the regime is inevitably less well remembered, and Franco is regarded as being virtually an Iberian Hitler, an image that has led to the  memorials and statues of him being removed from nearly all Spanish towns and cities. There’s no doubt though, that in 1982 there were plenty of people who regretted the loss of some aspects of the way the previous regime ran the country. It seems that 30 years on, this is still the case. The same will happen in the countries affected by the Arab Spring, the definitive results of which will be up in the air for a long time.

This caricature has had the side effect of presenting the Spanish Civil War as a straight fight between evil (nationalists/Falange) and good (republicans/communists), an approach completely lacking in nuance, and which arbitrarily ignores the frequently astonishing cruelty of the republicans.

Which is one reason why  Soldiers of Salamis is one of the very best books on war, and a great  European novel.

It uses real people as characters – the author Javier Cercas virtually plays himself – and substantial political  figures from recent Spanish history to present a tail of patriotism, nationalism, violence, fear and undiluted courage, in the most unlikely form. Cercas’ achievement is to leave the deepest, most moving points almost unstated. He doesn’t resort to the cheap stereotypes of the winning nationalist/Falange side so beloved of the European left, and self righteous egomaniacs like Baltasar Garzon.

Cercas  neither explicitly  approves nor disapproves of  what Spain became after the war, tacitly acknowledging that life is more complex than most writers care to admit, or are able to put into words. The link created between the Iberian war and the subsequent European conflict is unexpected, and brilliantly done.

The Knife has, without experiencing it, commented before on the necessity of showing the reality of war. Through the most carefully constructed and deceptively forceful prose, Soldiers of Salamis does exactly that.

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