Reviewed by Lucina Schell, Editor
In his fascinating novel, Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis), Javier Cercas allows his readers to discover the peculiarly symbolic life of the real historical figure Rafael Sanchez Mazas as we follow the journalistic detective work of the novel’s metafictional narrator. The unnamed narrator, a frustrated novelist turned journalist, first encounters the figure of Sánchez Mazas in an interview with his son who has just published a book. A well known writer of some literary merit prior to the Spanish Civil War and rise of fascism, Rafael Sanchez Mazas is apparently remembered most for his close association with the Spanish Falange as an advisor to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. Toward the end of the war, as the Republicans retreated into Catalonia, Sánchez Mazas was taken for execution by firing squad along with about 50 other inmates in January 1939. Incredibly, he escaped into the forest. Sánchez Mazas had been one of the most important political prisoners of the Republicans since 1937 and was found shortly after by a Republican soldier. The soldier looked Sánchez Mazas in the eye and called out to his compatriots that no one was there, abandoning his search. Sanchez Mazas hid out the last weeks of the war until the fascists overtook Catalonia, where he rejoined Franco’s army and obtained a high post in the subsequent government, later pardoning from imprisonment the friends of contrary persuasion who had helped him survive in the forest. Becoming obsessed with this key mystery of the soldier’s identity, the narrator sets out in pursuit of the truth and decides to make the story of Sánchez Mazas the subject of his next book, but is determined to write it as a nonfictional account or “relato real.”
The narrator’s conflict between being a “true” writer and a journalist is the first juxtaposition in a novel loaded with them, making the reader question constantly what is true. As Annie Chisholm puts it astutely in her review for the Telegraph, “verifiable and imaginative truth are combined to unusual effect.” The novel self-consciously comments on the juxtaposition of fiction and nonfiction. We follow the narrator on his quest to write the definitive account of this mysterious historical figure in interviews with key players or their descendants, ultimately creating what makes up the second part of the novel: the biography of Sanchez Mazas. In the third and final section of the book, however, the narrator struggles to solve the mystery of the Republican soldier at the center of his historical account in order to complete the work we have just read in part two, and the book ends positing the possibility that the narrator will in fact resort to conjecture—and thus fiction—in order to create a satisfying conclusion for his story. Complicating all of this is of course the fact that we know ourselves to be reading a novel, yet it is a novel that includes real historical and contemporary characters (Roberto Bolano figures prominently as a friend to the narrator with a connection to the history he is attempting to uncover, as well as a juxtaposition of a successful novelist to the narrator’s journalist), and purports to document real historical events, which a cursory Google search reveals are accurately described.
The juxtaposition I personally find most fascinating in the novel is that of writer and politician in the figure of Rafael Sánchez Mazas. “Aunque solo publicó un libro de poemas en vida, es posible que Sánchez Mazas se sintiera siempre un poeta, y acaso esencialmente lo fue,” the journalist analyzes in his biography. “Sus contemporáneos, sin embargo, lo conocieron ante todo como autor de crónicas, de artículos, de novelas y, sobre todo, como político, que es justo lo que nunca se sintió y lo que acaso esencialmente nunca fue.” (78) History typically assigns one role to each of us, and it seems that Sánchez Mazas might have quarreled with his. As the narrator reveals, Sánchez Mazas did little actual political work; in fact, he seemed to disdain it. Unlike some of his fellow prisoners, he was not really a soldier. But in his most probing discussion of the conflict between writer and politician, Cercas explains the political work of Sánchez Mazas–and the power poets may wield:
“No sé quién dijo que, gane quién gane las guerras, las pierden siempre los poetas…el 29 de octubre de 1933, en el primer acto público de Falange Española, en el Teatro de la Comedia de Madrid, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, que siempre andaba rodeado de poetas, había dicho que ‘a los pueblos no los han movido nunca más que los poetas.’ La primera afirmación es una estupidez; la segunda no: es verdad que las guerras se hacen por dinero, que es poder, pero los jóvenes parten al frente y matan y se hacen matar por palabras, que son poesía, y por eso son los poetas los que siempre ganan las guerras…” (49)
The power of poetry as a form of propaganda to move revolutionary furor is what actually wins wars, argues the narrator. From this perspective, the narrator flings his most damning indictment at Sánchez Mazas:
“…y por eso Sánchez Mazas, que estuvo siempre al lado de José Antonio y desde ese lugar de privilegio y yugos y flechas y gritos de rigor que inflamó la imaginación de centenares de miles de jóvenes y acabó mandándolos al matadero, es más responsible de la victoria de las armas franquistas que todas las ineptas maniobras militares de aquel general decimonónico que fue Francisco Franco.” (49)
And yet, once appointed as a minister in Franco’s regime, Sánchez Mazas showed so little interest in politics, declining to attend political meetings, that he was quickly removed from his post. Later, our journalist ponders why Sánchez Mazas did not attend his own induction into the Real Academia de la Lengua, the highest honor for a Spanish writer, shortly after Franco’s installation in power. It was because he was “Consciente de que su elección como académico obedecía a motivos politicos y no literarios, ” the narrator surmises (129).
The poetry of Sánchez Mazas was arguably his most important political act and evidently his true passion, yet he clearly wanted it to be appreciated for its own sake, its own literary merit, and not its political capital. Ultimately, Sánchez Mazas’ political activity disowned him of his place in either politics or literature, and in this way, his literary legacy was a casualty of the war. While many writers have been politically active throughout history, it seems to be a dangerous and highly charged relationship. Even writers whose political activity does not enter into their writing have still found their work suppressed when the wrong faction wins the war, or when it falls to the wrong side of popular opinion. And it cannot be overstated that fascist regimes are no champions of literary culture, even among their so-called members; literature is too wiley and uncontrollable for their liking.
The topic of writers whose work has been suppressed, forgotten, and generally not accorded its place in the literary canon due to political events in their country is of great personal interest to me, and is one that this blog will continue to pursue.
*I read the Spanish original, which I would recommend even to intermediate Spanish readers, as a relatively easy–and short at 200 pages–read. For English readers, Anne McLean’s translation is acclaimed.