Notes from an Italian hermitage – despatches from BOLOGNA #3
An unclassifiable novel of Spain – Extremadura and Catalonia
22nd June 2019
Lord of All the Dead by Javier Cercas, an unclassifiable novel of Spain – set in Extremadura and Catalonia.
Set in Spain in Extremadura and Catalonia, Lord of All the Dead is a non-fiction novel of Cercas’ ancestor, Manuel Mena, who fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of Falange, and who died at the age of nineteen in the Catalan village of Bot. The novel reads like a memoir of Cercas’ own journey of discovery as he finally investigates a relative for which he has little but contempt, an investigation he had put off for many years out of shame. His family are Francoists and he is not. Shame drives the author’s quest for understanding the idea of the hero as he wrestles with his own mother’s adoration of her beloved uncle, a mother who waxed lyrical about Mena when Cercas was a child.
The introspective inquiry Cercas embarks on is one also driven by his own eminent position as an esteemed author and columnist. He might be considered Spain’s version of Ian McEwan or someone of that ilk. This position of privilege comes through in some measure as self-indulgence, since it is only those who are known names who can write in such a fashion and find acceptance and be read, and Cercas knows it and takes full advantage. This subtext is so strong it might be regarded as a form of elitism. Yet by the same measure, Cercas is ruthlessly humble and lays himself bare and for that I commend his courage, both to tackle the topic of the ‘shameful relative’ and embark on an intense and rigorous inquiry into what it is like to come from a pro-Franco family, and to do so in a profoundly reflexive fashion. I also commend the author for composing an experimental or hybrid novel, testing the boundaries of what constitutes fiction.
The prose is impeccable as the reader would expect from Javier Cercas, and the sense of place is powerful. From the point of view of the non-Spanish onlooker, Lord of All the Dead provides a revealing insight into the complexities of heroism and what it was like on a very human level to live under Franco and to live today in the cultural and familial aftermath. A timely and apposite book.
Isobel Blackthorn for the TripFiction team
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