His stories: On Javier Cercas’ “Soldiers of Salamis”

Cercas, Javier (2002), Soldiers of Salamis, Bloomsbury
ISBN-13 978-1582343846
[Translation: Anne McLean]

There you go. It’s that time of drunk again, another review. This is the first half of what I wanted to be two joint reviews, one of Cercas’ novel and the other of Kertész’s novel Fiasko, because they are thematically related, just that one is great and the other’s decent. However, I mislaid my copy of Fiasko so I decided to shelve that miserable review and get on with this crapulicious piece.

So. I’ll start with the decent one, Javier Cercas’ novel Soldiers of Salamis, originally published in 2001. It is a nice novel, but not necessary reading. It’s short, light, entertaining and contains enough seriousness and originality to make up for the flaccid narration. This sounds harsher than intended, probably. It consists of three parts, chronicling the efforts of the protagonist to write an account of an incident in the Spanish Civil War. That protagonist is called Javier Cercas, and yes, this is a bad sign. It is an awkwardly postmodern construction, trying very hard to put a complex spin on the war, trying to exploit the complexities of memory and narration. I call it awkward, but it’s not bad. The parts are all there, lies, dead ends, conflicts between oral storytelling and written storytelling, distrust towards the written word, falsified evidence and a examination of what exactly authority in the telling of history constitutes. Plus, there are some nice touches. One endearing detail are the funny cameos, most prominently that of Roberto Bolano, recently deceased Chilean giant, who, in interviews in 2003 expressed his delight at being known more as a character in Cercas’ novel than as an actual writer. Bolano is similarly engaged in mixing fact and fiction yet his subtlety, so evident in The Savage Detectives, is nowhere near in evidence in Cercas novel.

The second thing is that the book can actually be forceful at times. It’s like a longer version of a passage from a far more mesmerizing Javier Marias novel in that it is powered by a strong interest in tracking down the historical truth about an incident that may seem isolated but is soon proving to be emblematic for the mire that the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship have created for Spain and its citizens, which, as the novel proves, has consequences for his country till today. And yet, Cercas manages never to overburden his novel with darkness and faux-serious historical signifying. Cercas manages his material well, he is confident in what he does, and the novel slowly unfolds like a well-laid plan. After finishing it, everything drops into place and whatever boredom may have forced you to spread the lecture of the novel over clearly too long a period, vanishes and is replaced with pleasure. Yes, pleasure.

And another positive aspect is that Cercas seems to be perfectly aware of his limitations as a writer, so much that the cameo of Roberto Bolano must be said to perfectly make up for a certain lack in his writing: humor. I said the tone is light but it’s not humorous, at least not in translation. The fact that it chronicles a dogged search for truth so so thoroughly done and expressed, and seems to require such an effort on the writer’s part that Cercas, needs to have recourse to someone else’s voice to make up for his lack. On the other hand, the fact that he is able to call on this voice and do it in such a satisfying way is indicative of his talents as a writer. The Bolano character steps up to the plate and boy does he smack the ball hard. The character is infinitely likeable, he’s nice, respectful, erudite, humorous and deeply serious at the same time. In fact he is the best drawn character in the whole book, the only one who jumps straight off the page. As a reader this is a strange experience, because it reminds you of all the flat characters, and that includes “Javier Cercas”.

The unevenness, however, is part of the novel’s technique, each section and each character serves a certain purpose (oh the banalities I write. Please do excuse me.), and after the first section, dealing with the hunt for truth, and the second section, consisting of an account of the events, the third section is what makes Soldiers of Salamis a novel, and a good one at that. On the surface, Bolano serves as a sauce thickener of sorts, by virtue of dispensing advice to “Cercas” who has trouble finishing the novel. On a different level, the character of Bolano itself does the same job, the warmth of the description and the elements that the voice of Bolano allows Cercas to add, cause the whole construct, which hitherto never felt more than just that: a construct, to finally gel.

Notice, I barely mentioned the whole postmodern novel-within-the-novel conceit, it’s because Cercas isn’t very good at that game and the less said, the better. It does demonstrate one important thing, though. As a historian you may end up with a straight tale, after years of research and digging for truth. This tale represented by the middle section of Soldiers of Salamis. The novel enveloping that section stresses, however, that history is hard to pin down, that it is always elusive, forming both all the straight tales to come, as well as influencing the interpretation of adjacent events and figures. This novel is not so much about history as it is about historiography. It provides insights into how historical accounts are written and it does that in a remarkably readable way.

If you are interested in the Spanish Civil War and want a good and moving read which is better than its component parts, get the book. I was glad to have read it, yet I am not the least curious about any of his other books. That may convey you this reader’s impression best, I think. In sum, a cautious recommendation. Maybe it’s the contrast with Kertész’s novel I finished a few days before starting the Cercas. Kertész (review forthcoming) wrote a necessary novel, moving, brutal, vivacious. Cercas didn’t. He wrote a good one, which is rare enough these days. More power to him.

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