21 October 2007

Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis, 2001

A most unusually constructed novel, one of those in which every detail purports to be fact – something that did not prevent Soldiers of Salamis from winning the 2004 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Soldiers of Salamis is centred around the story of what happened one fateful day near the end of the Spanish Civil War, a day in which fascist writer and poet Rafael Sánchez Mazas cheated death twice in one day, the first time by escaping from a firing squad, the second by a soldier who hunts him down, looks him in the eye, and then inexplicably just walks away. In researching the life of Sánchez Mazas, Cercas uncovers a man whose disproportionate influence on twentieth century Spanish history far outstretched his literary abilities or political ambition, revealing him to be little more than a persuasive protofascist and coward. But who was the unknown man on which this story hinges, the executioner who didn’t pull the trigger? And might he still be alive?

Javier Cercas embeds Sánchez Mazas’s story in between two episodes of his own life, first as he decides this is a story worth writing and later as he realises the story is incomplete without looking further into the identity of the unknown soldier. While the book moves along at a steady enough pace for the first two parts, the third part – in which Cercas believes, sixty years after the event, that he has actually tracked down the mysterious man – simply soars, and the story widens out (with the help of a memorable appearance by Roberto Bolaño) to illustrate how much of history has often turned on the actions of forgotten, but extraordinary, people. Soldiers of Salamis only avoids being historical revisionism by virtue of the fact that Sánchez Mazas’s reputation has previously relied on little more than myth and received opinion, and Cercas convinces you that even if this story probably may not be true down to the very last detail, he thoroughly deserves the artistic licence in the telling of an extraordinary history. Highly recommended.   PY

  Soldiers of Salamis won the 2004 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

No comments: