If you are interested in war novels, I would recommend “The Soldiers of Salamis” by Spanish writer Javier Cercas. Other than combining fact and fiction, what makes this novella special is that it’s based on a real character Rafael Sánchez Mazas (1894-1966).
Mazas was a Spanish nationalist writer and leader of the Falange, a right-winged political movement that was created before the Spanish Civil War. The novel starts in 1994 with a fictional Javier Cercas – a writer and a reporter- interviewing the son of Mazas. The son shares the famous story of his dad escaping the execution of January 1939. When the firing began at the prisoners, Mazas leapt out of the line and ran away into the woods.
After days of manhunt, a Republican soldier found him hiding under some bushes and instead of arresting him, he spared his life. When Franco took power in the same year, Mazas became a minister without a portfolio. Cercas is fascinated by the Republican soldier who spared Mazas’ life and decides to find him. His six years of research brings him across many old soldiers who knew Mazas personally and helped him after his famous escape. He also meets Miralles, a Republican soldier who had fought during that time and later joined the French Foreign Legion that led many successful battles in the Second World War.
The intriguing question that faces Cercas and the readers alike: Was Miralles the soldier who saved Mazas’ life? And if so, what was the motive behind it? Would his life or death have made a difference in Spanish modern history? “The Soldiers of Salamis” was acclaimed by critics at the time of its publication in 2001 and was a best-seller for many months. Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa described it as: “one of the great novels of our time”. But why did this war novel get its universal acclaim? Javier Cercas comes from a generation who lived through the Spanish Civil War. However, after the death of Franco in 1975, a political decision made by both left and right parties called “The Pact of Forgetting” deemed to leave the past behind and focus on the future of Spain. This made many of Cercas’ generation reluctant to write about the war.
But things changed in 2000, after the formation of the foundation of Association of the Recovery of Historical Memory. Seven years later, the Law of Historical Memory was established to recognise those who suffered persecution or violence during the Civil War and the Dictatorship of Franco.
For foreigners like us with little or no knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, I would recommend watching a six-part documentary about the subject on YouTube before reading the book. It would make it easier to understand the reason behind the war and different political factions that were later united either under the Nationalist’s or the Republican’s banners.
Cercas is an effective storyteller that takes you right into the pre and post-Civil War Spain as he cleverly narrates the war from the perspective of both sides. The streak of melancholy accompanies the narrative for all the innocent lives that were lost, along with the eternal question: Was it really worth it? Although it lasted for three years only, the Civil War had left on its wake one million deaths including that of starvation. 250,000 Spanish refugees fled to France, crossing the snowy Pyrenees mountains on foot. In 2003 the book was adapted into a Spanish movie by the same name. A year later, the English translation won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. “The Soldiers of Salamis” is a rare treat.