by Stephen Tall on January 25, 2012
The first book I read by Cercas (his most recent) was The Anatomy of a Moment, a factual work of historical interpretation. Soldiers of Salamis is a fictional work of historical imagination.
The novel is authored by a fictional ‘Javier Cercas’, an alter ego who tells the story of the real Rafael Sánchez Mazas, a “good, not great” writer and nationalist leader of the Falange, Spain’s Fascist movement, who fled a firing squad and only evaded re-capture and certain death thanks to “an anonymous defeated soldier”, a republican ‘forest friend’.
Divided into three parts — the first focuses on ‘Cercas’s’ decision to investigate the truth of Sánchez Mazas’s escape, the second is a not unsympathetic reconstruction of Sánchez Mazas’s plight — the third section, when ‘Cercas’ befriends Miralles, the man he believes allowed Sánchez Mazas to go free, is an utterly absorbing yet tender setpiece, suffused with paradoxical reflections on honour and heroism, memory and reality.
Some find Cercas’s syntactically circumlocutory style off-putting; for me it is inseparable from the rational justice that inhabits his words. A quite remarkable writer.