Soldados de Salamina

Cercas, Soldados de Salamina

Javier Cercas’s Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis) is a hybrid, metafictional (or self-reflective) blend of fiction and fact, novel and history or testimony. It is metafictional in so far as the story it tells is purportedly the story of the writing of the book itself: the narrator and protagonist is a Spanish writer called Javier Cercas who is writing a book with the title Soldados de Salamina. The book (the book we are reading) ends as the narrator, looking at his own reflection in a train window while the day outside fades into night, suddenly envisages the book (the book he is writing) “complete, finished, from beginning to end, from the first to the last line” (206). The book (the book he is writing) can take shape now that the narrator has found “the part that was missing in order for the mechanism of the book to function” (165), that being the story of a former soldier named Antoni (or Antonio) Miralles, which occupies the third, final, and longest section of the book (the book we are reading). The narrator sees his book coming together as he returns home from a meeting with Miralles, as the train hurtles through the dark to its destination, and as the book (the book we are reading) races to its own conclusion, whose final words both refer to Miralles’s wartime campaigns and resonate with the rhythm of the tracks: “onwards, onwards, onwards, ever onwards” (“hacia delante, hacia delante, hacia deltante, siempre hacia delante” [207]).

Rather than taking away from the realism of the text, if anything the metafiction enhances it, making the book seem less metafictional per se (less a fiction about a fiction) than self-reflective: a fact about a fact. After all, it is undeniable that Javier Cercas the author has written a book entitled Soldados de Salamina; we hold it in our hands. So when the narrator, also names Javier Cercas, claims to have done the same, we tend to believe him. Moreover, many of the central elements of the book are a matter of historical record: Cercas hears about Miralles thanks to a conversation with Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean novelist who (in the real world as much as in the world of the novel) lived in a small town in Catalonia not far from (author and narrator) Cercas’s own home. And both the book Cercas is writing and the one we are reading, which the story of Miralles completes, deal with the escape of writer and politician Rafael Sánchez Mazas, who in real life and fiction alike was a founding member of the fascist Spanish Falange, from a Republican firing squad. And when the book (the book we are reading) includes a photograph of a handwritten page from a diary written by Sánchez Mazas (57), this is indeed a snippet from the historical archive, the image of a page written in Sánchez Mazas’s own hand about his time as a fugitive from the retreating Loyalist army.

This dramatic episode from the last days of the Civil War sounds almost too good an inspiration to be true for a blocked writer (as both narrator and author are said to have been): the book, the one we are reading at least, tells us twice that it is a “story that sounds very much like something from a novel” (“una historia muy novelesca” [33, 196]). And yet, we are told even more often, the book that the narrator is writing is not a novel at all: it is a “true tale” (“relato real”), that is (as the narrator explains to his rather ditzy girlfriend), it is “like a novel [. . .] except that, instead of being one long lie, everything in it is true” (66). But of course the fact of the matter is that, unlike the book the narrator is writing, the book we are reading is neither one long lie nor completely true. Cercas the narrator (whose father has just died) is not quite Cercas the author (whose father is still alive). And whereas Sánchez Mazas and Bolaño, for instance, are historical figures much as they are depicted in the book, the same is decidedly not the case for the “missing” part of the narrative, the Republican veteran Miralles. It is as though Cercas (the author) had followed the (alleged) advice of Bolaño to Cercas the narrator (perhaps also Cercas the author): “’You’ll have to make it up,’ he said. ‘Make what up?’ ‘The interview with Miralles. It’s the only way you can finish the novel’” (167).

So, does any of this matter? Well, let’s take seriously the notion that Miralles and the (made up) interview with him were indeed (as we are told) “the missing part to complete the mechanism that was otherwise whole yet incapable of performing the function for which it had been devised” (163). What function does Miralles enable the book to perform?

Miralles is a veteran not only of the Spanish Civil War (in which he is on the losing, Republican side) but also of World War Two, in which he fights–ceaselessly, without respite–as a member of the French Foreign Legion, from North Africa to Normandy to Paris (he is in the first Allied unit to liberate the French capital) and on to Germany and Austria. As such, he converts defeat into victory, and what is more (the book claims) we are all in his debt. Three times Cercas imagines him marching to join up with Montgomery’s forces in Libya, “carrying the tricolor flag of a country not his own, of a country that is all countries and also the country of liberty and which only exists because he and four Moors and a black guy are raising that flag as they keep walking onwards, onwards, ever onwards” (192). The tragedy is that his service is now forgotten: the narrator sees people cross the “Place de la Libération” in Dijon “and across all the plazas in Europe going about their business, not knowing that their fate and the fate of the civilization they’d abdicated responsibility for depended on Miralles continuing to walk onwards, ever onwards” (193). Hence the book’s function becomes testimony to this unsung hero, and his fallen comrades, none of whom (unlike the fascist Sánchez Mazas) would ever have a street named after them. But, Cercas tells us, “as long as I tell his story Miralles would somehow live on,” and the same with all his former comrades in arms: “they would live on even though they’d been many years dead, dead, dead, dead” (206). No wonder Soldados de Salamina had such success when it was published in 2001: just as the last veterans of the Civil War were coming to the end of their lives, Cercas gives literature the function of ensuring that their memory, or the memory of their memories, should live on through the documented fiction (or the fictional documentation) of the hunt to record the fragile traces they left in passing.

But without this fictional supplement, without this (supposedly) “missing part” added to a “mechanism that was otherwise whole,” the book would be rather darker and more disturbing–if also substantially more interesting. Because ultimately Sánchez Mazas is a far more complex character than Miralles, and not simply because he is more than a mere literary character, however much his story sounds like something from a novel.

Sánchez Mazas, whose tale Cercas tells fairly straightforwardly in the middle section of the novel, was no hero. If anything, he was something of coward who simply caught a lucky break in managing to flee a fate that he eminently deserved. For who more merited execution than “Spain’s first fascist” (80), the chief ideologue of the Falange, who “had worked during the twenties and thirties harder than almost anyone so that his country would be submerged in a savage orgy of blood” (49)? Yet the book ends up treating him with a strange sympathy, and not only because it focuses on a moment at which–terrified, cowering in the undergrowth of a Catalan forest at the mercy of a Republican militiaman who unaccountably decides not to give him up–he is at his weakest and most vulnerable. For the point that Cercas makes is that even (or especially) in his triumph, in the aftermath of the fascist victory as he rose briefly to prominence in Franco’s regime, ultimately he (too) was on the losing side.

For it is not just left-wing revolutions that are betrayed: however much he refuses to admit or apologize for it, he had “contributed all his forces to igniting a war that destroyed a legitimate republic without as a result managing to bring about the fearsome regime of poets and Renaissance mercenaries of which he had dreamed, but only a banal government of knaves, thugs, and sanctimonious prigs” (132-33). In short the Falange, too, was betrayed by Franco, just as it had urged Franco and his ilk to betray Spain. There is little honour among thieves, Cercas suggests, but at times Sánchez Mazas also emerges as almost a tragic figure who in the end was sold out but also sold himself out as he gave up on politics and literature alike to become the very image of the decadent bourgeois against whom in his youth he had been the first to rebel. “Sánchez Mazas won the war and lost the history of literature,” Cercas quotes Andrés Trapiello telling us, but in fact this was a self-inflicted defeat: he might perhaps have become a great writer, but he ended up merely a good one. And as for winning the war, yes (unlike the fictional Miralles) he has a street in Bilbao named after him, but otherwise he is basically forgotten. Indeed, if it were not for the stunning success of Soldados de Salamina, he would be more forgotten still. The irony is that, though he doesn’t figure in the list the narrator makes of those whose memory the book will perpetuate, Sánchez Mazas lives on in part thanks to Cercas’s novel, which takes its title indeed from the book that (we are told) Sánchez Mazas would have written about his time as a fugitive, but never did. However inadvertently, Cercas finds himself stepping in to complete some part of the disgraced fascist’s legacy.

The character of Miralles, then, though presented as part of a paean to memory and the power of testimony, in fact functions within the novel to help us forget its own portrayal of Falangism. It is a “missing part” in an almost quite literal replay of the Derridean pharmakon: both poison and cure. For however much this book’s explicit narrative is posed against the discourse of forgetfulness promoted by the so-called Transition to democracy after Franco’s death, in fact for much of the time it serves to prove that once you start digging up the past there’s no telling what you may find. Better therefore, as antidote to such unwelcome memories, to invent a caricature hero, indelibly scarred but indefatigable warrior for all the right causes. Cast testimony aside. Don’t look back. Onwards, onwards, ever onwards.

One thought on “Soldados de Salamina

  1. Pingback: Spanish Civil War novels | Posthegemony

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