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An important novel set in Spain – guest review by Isobel Blackthorn

11th November 2019

Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, an important novel set in Spain

An important novel set in Spain

A compelling novel in which the central narrative is bookended by the author-narrator’s own story of how he came to write an account of poet, national hero and founding member of Falange, Rafael Sanchez Mazas, a figure for which he has little to no sympathy, and the discoveries he makes as a result, particularly the Republican soldier who spared his life. The central narrative focusses on how Mazas managed to escape a firing squad only to be faced by a soldier who inexplicably let him go, and then how Mazas hid in the woods, aided by local farmers. Much of the backstory that led up to Mazas’ imprisonment and what happened after he escaped is based on speculation and varying accounts. Piecing together the truth of war shown to be a difficult yet necessary task, all part of the process of coming to terms and healing.

The title, ‘Soldiers of Salamis’, is a reference to a naval battle fought in 480 BC between Greek city-states and the Persian empire, a battle so long ago and far away as to be seemingly an irrelevance to the present. Soldiers of Salamis is at root a literary detective story, the sleuth on a quest for answers buried in history. The tone is self-effacing and genial, Cercas laying bare his foibles, presenting himself as he is, a man of conscience striving to come to terms with the Spanish Civil War, Francoism, and the scars that run deep in the collective Spanish psyche, not least that there were atrocities on both sides of the war.

I first visited Barcelona in 1983, eight years after the death of Franco, and I was made aware, very aware of the raw feelings of the Catalans and of the Republicans. Since then, I have empathized from afar, occasionally enriched by a book such as this. Cercas questions the causes of the civil war, suggesting that through his literary output and prowess, Mazas was instrumental in the rise of fascism in Spain, inspiring soldiers with ideology, rousing them to battle. To some extent, Cercas’ focus on Mazas is a device through which to portray the attitudes, beliefs and strategies of the fascists bent on overpowering the Second Republic, fascists who were supported wholeheartedly by the wealthy elite, the poetry, slogans of Mazas deployed as propaganda to overpower the masses.

In all, Soldiers of Salamis is an important book. A strong sense of place is evoked with sparing prose, Cercas saving his complex syntax for his reflective passages.

Guest Review for TripFiction by Isobel Blackthorn

Isobel is a prolific Australian novelist. She writes both contemporary/literary, thrillers and dark fiction. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and via her website. 

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  1. User: Judith Works

    Posted on: 11/11/2019 at 7:51 pm

    Looks like a “must-read” for me.


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