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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Juan Goytisolo: The Blind Rider

Blind Rider is a book that punishes too hasty readers. Not in the way that actually ‘understanding’ the book becomes a problem, or, Finnegan’s Wake-like, an impossibility. You can plow hastily through the book and feel you understood everything. Blind Rider is a strange novel, very well written (as far as you can see this through the usual haze of translation), but strangely not quotable.

At the center of it is a man who has lost his wife and is struggling with the way he perceives life, and more specifically, reality, religion and love. It is composed of small chapters, that often move from wonderfully observed particular to general observation, within generally three pages. There are differently structured chapters, of course, it’s not a strictly composed novel, as far as I see it.

Many passages are shockingly vapid, empty, cliché, they are good imitations of bad ‘philosophical’ literature, reminiscent of what Bernhard attacked so brilliantly as ‘writers of aphorisms’ in Der Untergeher. There is obviously a shallowness even in the passages that detail his loss. Taken chapter by chapter, not reading the whole novel, I’d say these are bad chapters, probably part of a bad book. Again, much of this is language, phrasing, things that could be due to whatever bee crept under this translator’s (Thomas Brovot) bonnet.

So, what do I mean by saying it punishes the hasty reader? Maybe I am, as usual, talking about my fat and bearded self. I came to this book with high expectations. One could call me a connoisseur of bleakness and by all accounts this book promised to be a trove of bleakness. And it started off so well, too. And I dug in, swallowing the book in big hungry gulps. I was, however, soon disappointed, because there is an abyss of abysmal writing to bleakness. Because of the surplus of strong emotion that seems, to the mediocre bleak writer, perfectly communicable by words and phrases treading well known paths, this sort of word, phrase or image (in pietry more often than not heavily indebted to Trakl) recurs time and again and becomes wearisome. All this may well be ‘heart-felt’ or ‘authentic’, but these are hardly literary terms and thus have no place in a defense of this book.

So I started to move along at a more and more sluggish pace, disappointment being the trouser around my ankles keeping me from running faster through the pages of this thin book. As the discourses with God cropped up, in line with a certain popular kind of cheap pseudo-theodicy, I wasn’t even more disappointed, I couldn’t be, as it appeared to be, to me, just more of the same uninspired dirge. Yes I noticed many literary references, mostly to Tolstoy’s prose, the Kreuzer Sonata, Hadschi Murat, War&Peace, Anna Karenina (how could I not have noticed) but it appeared to be, for me, just an undemanding way of putting meat on the bones of this skeleton of a narrative.

How could I have been so mistaken! This occurred to me within an hour of finishing the book. Something wasn’t right about my impressions but, off the cuff, I wasn’t able to tell what the problem was, exactly. So I reread the novel, and, as I said: boy was I wrong about it!

A hint of how this novel works surfaces in the dense web of explicit and implicit literary references. The careful structure (not strict but still careful) assures that nothing in it feels haphazard, incidental. Reading more than five mini-chapters in a row you immediately lose whatever thought of mediocrity one may have, the mind at work is obviously a brilliant one. The question of one’s ontological status (“do I exist?”), the web of literary reference, and the aforementioned insipidness of some of the remarks, which border on caricatures of so-called philosophical discourse.

The point to this, I guess, is, what does it matter? Theoretical discourse is exposed as disposable here. What does it matter, the narrator thinks, I feel, and grimly, blackly, sometimes blackly humorous, presents these cliché puppets of such discourses. A fellow student told me last week that he considered theory to be a nice exercise for idle brains but not much use in day-to-day life. And what happened to the narrator before the novel sets in has shown this to be true, to him.

There is a loss at the heart of this novel, which borders on being a poem, so well is it composed, so few words are incidental, a loss that has caused the narrator to lose faith. Not faith in God, faith in everything, language, reality, God. This book is an effort to resurrect his faith by trying to cope with the disability this loss of faith can be to a writer. If you don’t believe in the power of words to create anew, why not use the truism that, to you, everything has become? He uses art to spin off it the feelings he isn’t able to describe adequately, my knowledge of Tolstoy has allowed for strong insights into the protagonist which were, I believe, hidden within these references, as other insights are hidden within the formulaic formulations.

In the final chapters the writing gets better as the protagonists reality merges more and more with discourse and art, and is all subsumed by it, his loss has been taken up by art and language and transformed into Nothing. Bleakness? Yep, it’s about bleakness all right, and it’s a deeper, more fundamental bleakness than most writers manage to express, because it’s not expressible. This tiny novel is like a vampire, feeding off all sorts of sources, and it’s a brilliant spectacle watching it do it’s work. ISBN