The very first thing that Javier Cercas tells us in his novel, Soldiers of Salamis (2001; translated into English by Anne McLean, 2003), which I re-read recently, is that he initially heard the Spanish Civil War story “about Rafael Sanchez Mazas facing the firing squad” in the summer of 1994, a half dozen years before the writing of the book we’re reading, and more than a half century after the events depicted in that story.
So, this is going to be a story about a story, an investigation into an historical “true tale,” “constantly alert to its own constructs,” as one reviewer, Colm Toibin, put it. But as Cercas is told much later in the novel, “Listen, those stories don’t interest anyone any more, not even those of us who lived through them; there was a time when they did, but not any more. Someone decided they had to be forgotten and, you know what I say? They were probably right… it would be best… if you forgot about this nonsense and devoted your time to something else.” Thus, the problem is how to interest people in stories that “don’t interest anyone any more.”
Cercas, the real-life narrator of Soldiers of Salamis, presents himself as a 40ish, sad-sack, failing writer, husband, and son. He’s forced to abandon his unrealized literary ambitions and slink back to his old journalist’s job (where they now make him “do everything but get the boss’s coffee from the bar on the corner”) at a newspaper in the northern Catalan city of Gerona. It’s a provincial city in Spain’s Catalonian region, located between the French Pyrenees and the regional capital of Barcelona, a part of the country to which George Orwell famously paid tribute in his memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia (1938).
I probably should say “seemingly real-life narrator” in describing Cercas, because although it’s true, as Cercas claims, that he published a couple of apparently less than memorable books a decade or so before this one, he also tells us at the outset that his father recently died, and his wife left him. But in a later interview about his novel, which he insists is a “true tale,” Cercas says that in fact his father is not dead and that “Javier Cercas” is a fictionalized version of Javier Cercas, the novelist and lecturer in Spanish literature at the University of Gerona.
I don’t have any information about the alleged wife who abandoned him as he sat in a blocked-writer’s funk before a blank television screen, but Conchi, the ebullient, irrepressibly vulgar, improbable TV fortune-teller girlfriend who turns up shortly afterwards certainly seems like a work of the imagination (she’s the one who will tell Cercas, “Well, honey, I don’t think imagination is really your strong suit”). Whatever else is going on in the “true tale” of the now-seemingly-ancient Spanish Civil War that Cercas is investigating, the scaffolding around it is designed to be playfully enticing, and may be one of the ways of getting us “interested” in stories “that don’t interest anyone any more.”
Once his journalist colleagues get done razzing him about his apostasy as a reporter and his failed pursuit of the literary chimera, Cercas is soon back to his old chores at the paper, “editing the odd piece, writing articles, doing interviews.” That’s how, in the summer of 1994, he ends up interviewing the well-known Spanish writer, Rafael Sanchez Ferlosio, who happens to be in Gerona, giving some lectures at the university. “I managed to get him to agree to talk to me for a while,” Cercas says, then adds, “Calling that an interview would be going a bit far; if it was an interview, it was the weirdest one I’ve ever done.”
The problem is, when he meets Sanchez Ferlosio at a local bar, the Bistrot, the eminent writer is surrounded by an adoring entourage, and moreover, refuses “to answer a single one of the questions I put to him.” So, if Cercas asks him a literary question about the characters in his books, “he would contrive to answer me with a discourse on, say, the causes of the rout of the Persian fleet in the battle of Salamis”; if Cercas seeks Sanchez Ferlosio’s opinion on the recent five hundredth anniversary of the conquest of the Americas, “he would answer me by describing with a wealth of gesticulation and detail, say, the correct use of a jack plane.”
It’s “an exhausting tug-of-war” which the journalist later attempts to salvage by rendering coherent an inchoate set of answers, occasionally reduced to the desperate device of more or less “making it up.” Then, almost as a throwaway, Cercas remarks that “it wasn’t until the last beer of the evening that Ferlosio told the story of his father facing the firing squad, the story that’s kept me in suspense” ever since.
Sanchez Ferlosio’s father was Rafael Sanchez Mazas, one of the founders of the Spanish Falange, the right-wing group that provided the ideological fodder for the Nationalist forces, led by General Francisco Franco, that overthrew the Spanish Republic and those loyal to it in 1939, after a three-year civil war. At the very end of the war, in January 1939, Sanchez Mazas, then a prisoner of the Republican forces, is taken, along with other prominent Nationalists, to the Collell Sanctuary, a former monastery and boarding school near Banyoles in northern Catalonia, to be executed, even as the defeated remnants of the Republican army and a river of civilian refugees are streaming north to cross the French border.
The story is simple enough. In the mass execution, which took place in the woods near the sanctuary, Sanchez Mazas unexpectedly survived. “The bullets only grazed him,” Ferlosio recounts, “and he took advantage of the confusion to run and hide in the woods.”
From there, sheltering in a ditch, he heard the dogs barking and the shots and the soldiers’ voices as they searched for him knowing they couldn’t waste much time searching because Franco’s troops were on their heels. At some point my father heard branches moving behind him; he turned and saw a militiaman looking at him. Then he heard a shout: “Is he there?” My father told how the soldier stared at him for a few seconds and then, without taking his eyes off him shouted, “There’s nobody over here!”, turned and walked away.
After that, Sanchez Mazas spent several days hiding in the woods, until he encountered some young men, former Republican soldiers, from a nearby village, who fed and protected him until the Nationalists arrived. They did so partly as an act of decency, but also because they shrewdly saw in Sanchez Mazas a sort of “insurance policy” against the fortunes of war once the regime change was accomplished. “I don’t think he ever saw them again,” Ferlosio concludes, “but he talked to me about them more than once. I remember he always called them by the name they’d given themselves: ‘the forest friends’.”
In salvaging his “interview” with Sanchez Ferlosio, both the battle of Salamis and the instructions on the use of a jack-plane are dropped in favour of the prominent writer’s views, inchoate or made up, on characters in novels and the recent anniversary celebrations of the discovery of America, and the story about Sanchez Mazas facing the firing squad isn’t mentioned. “At the time I’d not read a single line of Sanchez Mazas,” confesses Cercas, “and to me he was no more than a mist-shrouded name, just one more of the many Falangist politicians and writers that the last years of Spanish history had hastily buried, as if the gravediggers feared they weren’t entirely dead.”
Perhaps they weren’t. The story sufficiently intrigues Cercas that he becomes curious about Sanchez Mazas and “about the Civil War, of which till then I’d known not much more than I did about the battle of Salamis… and about the horrific stories that war produced, which till then I’d considered excuses for old men’s nostalgia and fuel for the imagination of unimaginative novelists.” For a while, Cercas takes an interest in Sanchez Mazas, one of the Falangist writers who “had won the war but lost literature,” as the scholar Andres Trapiello put it in a book about writing and the Spanish Civil War. It doesn’t take long for Cercas “to conclude that Sanchez Mazas was a good writer, but not a great writer.” In any case, “Time passed. I began to forget the story.”
It’s not until five years later, in February 1999, the year of the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War, that Cercas is assigned to write a commemorative article about the tragic last days of the famous left-wing Spanish poet Antonio Machado, who “in January 1939 (together with his mother, his brother Jose and some hundreds of thousands of their utterly terrified compatriots), driven by the advance of Franco’s troops, fled from Barcelona to Collioure, on the other side of the French border, where he died a short time later.” It was a well-known episode that “not a single Catalan (or non-Catalan) journalist would manage to avoid recalling.” Cercas resigns himself to doing “the standard time-honoured” hack job. That’s when he remembers Sanchez Mazas and his botched execution, which had occurred at more or less the same time as Machado’s death.
The sad-sack journalist has a tiny inspiration. “I then imagined that the symmetry and contrast between these two terrible events — a kind of chiasmus of history — was perhaps not coincidental and that, if I could manage to get across the substance of each within the same article, the strange parallel might perhaps endow them with new meaning.”
What follows is the text of the article, which is presented as a document called “The Essential Secret” (I haven’t checked to see if it was indeed published in a Gerona newspaper in 1999, but Cercas presents it at such). And, as promised, the journalist weaves together the two stories, of the poet’s death and the Falangist writer’s escape, adding, “We’ll never know who that militiaman was who spared Sanchez Mazas’s life, nor what passed through his mind when he looked him in the eye,” just as we’ll never know what was said by Machado’s surviving family members as they stood before the grave of the poet. “I don’t know why, but sometimes I think, if we managed to unveil one of these parallel secrets, we might perhaps also touch on a much more essential secret,” the article concludes, suggesting that perhaps the secret is contained in the well known lines of another poet, Jaime Gil, who wrote, “Of all the stories in History / the saddest is no doubt Spain’s / because it ends badly.”
The reason for reprising all of this in some detail is because the self-reflexive sub-theme of Cercas’s novel is about how we become not only interested, but obsessed, with a story, a small story that opens the door to the historical memory of an entire country. After publishing his article, to Cercas’s mild surprise, he receives some letters about his piece in the paper.
One of them is from a young local historian in nearby Banjoles, Miquel Aguirre, who writes to Cercas to tell him that someone else besides Sanchez Mazas had escaped from the execution at Collell and wrote a now forgotten book about it, a copy of which Aguirre offers to provide. The two men meet at Cercas’s favourite watering hole, the Bistrot bar, for dinner and drinks, where Aguirre delivers the obscure book about the firing squad, and fills Cercas in on the background of the story. But there’s something more. At the end of their conversation, Aguirre, polishing off his chocolate cake dessert, drops the crumb that changes everything.
“Did Ferlosio tell you about the ‘forest friends’?” Aguirre asks.
“Do you know about them?” Cercas asks, surprised, since he had cited Ferlosio as the source of the story about the firing squad, but hadn’t mentioned the “forest friends” in his piece.
“I know the son of one of them,” Aguirre tells him.
“You’re kidding,” says Cercas.
“I’m not kidding.”
Suddenly, like Cercas, we perk up. What had been a casual, meandering, shaggy-dog war story is now a recoverable mystery, given a little persistence and luck. One thing will lead to another. There will be dead-ends, misunderstood clues, unexpected revelations. The trail of crumbs through the forest is a time machine. We stop worrying about whether we’re interested in the distant Spanish Civil War, or how Spaniards in the 21st century see it retrospectively, or whether we can keep track of the welter of names, characters and documents that the investigation will turn up. Cercas stops worrying, too. We simply follow the story to see where it takes us.
First, it takes us on holiday to a Cancun, Mexico resort with Conchi and Javier. That’s where Cercas realizes “that the character and his story had over time turned into one of those obsessions that constitute the indispensable fuel for writing… I decided that, after almost ten years without writing a book, the moment to try again had arrived, and I also decided that the book I’d write would not be a novel, but simply a true tale, a tale cut from the cloth of reality.”
Once back in Spain, the story takes us everywhere a story has to go: to dusty provincial archives; to obscure phone conversations with civil war literary scholars in Madrid; to minute comparisons of versions of the story, which in its many re-tellings has practically become a folktale; to Sanchez Mazas’s own notebook (a page of which is reproduced in the text); to former sanctuaries and killing grounds; and most of all, to people, like the son of one of the “forest friends.” He’s the one who says to Cercas, “Anyway, if you do plan to write about Sanchez Mazas and my father, you should really talk to my uncle. He definitely knows all the details.”
“What uncle?” Cercas asks.
“My uncle Joaquim… My father’s brother. Another one of the forest friends.”
Cercas is stunned. It’s as if the son of the forest friend had “just announced the resurrection of one of the soldiers of Salamis.” “He’s alive?” Cercas asks, having assumed that all of the forest friends were long since dead. Not only Uncle Joaquim, it turns out, but others too, old Catalans in their 80s, who are perfectly happy to chat with the young writer up from Gerona. (In the film of Cercas’s book, made by director David Trueba in 2003, the elderly Catalan-speaking “forest friends” are there in person, their words sub-titled in Spanish.)
When Cercas formally announces to Conchi at a restaurant where they’re having dinner that he’s writing a book, she’s happy that it’s not a novel (since, as noted previously, she says, “Well, honey, I don’t think imagination is really your strong suit”), but is distressed to learn what it’s about. “How can you want to write about a fascist with the number of really good lefty writers there must be around! Garcia Lorca, for example. He was a red, wasn’t he?”
Later, one of the elderly forest friends says to Cercas that Sanchez Mazas told them he was going to write a book about his brush with death. “He was going to call it Soldiers of Salamis; strange title, don’t you think? He also said he’d send it to us, but he didn’t… Do you know if he wrote the book?”
Part two of Cercas’s novel, also titled “Soldiers of Salamis,” is an account of the life of the right-wing, “good but not great” writer, Falangist politician, and melancholic aristocrat, Rafael Sanchez Mazas.
There’s a translation problem with Soldiers of Salamis. I’m not referring to Anne McLean’s translation of it into English, which is eminently readable, but to a problem of cultural translation. The most extreme example of this that I encountered happened when I tried to teach Cercas’s novel to first-year university students in a Philosophy and Literature class a couple of years ago. I figured we’d have some philosophic fun with “true tales” and “fiction,” with “unreliable narrators,” the ironies of history, characters invented out of necessity and that sort of thing. It would be a lesson about the ambiguities of “reality.”
But as soon as I started talking about Cercas’s book, I felt one of those holes in the classroom that teachers are trained to notice. I looked up, and half-realized what it was. “Have you heard of the Spanish Civil War?” I asked in my most non-accusatory possible voice.
They hadn’t. And since I could hardly expect them to sit down and read the two standard, thick texts on the subject, Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War (1961; revised, 2001) or Antony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain (1982; revised 2006), neither of which, oddly enough, mentions Rafael Sanchez Mazas, I brightly chirped, “Oh, I’ll tell you about the Spanish Civil War then, and try to explain why it was so important.” They looked up, like flightless fledglings in the nest, and opened their beaks in preparation to receive a tasty historical worm.
I quoted Albert Camus’s eloquent remark about what the experience of the Spanish Civil War meant: “It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so many men, the world over, regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.” I paused to ask them if they knew who Albert Camus was. They didn’t. When I mentioned in passing George Orwell’s famous memoir about the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, there was a similar problem. They hadn’t heard of it. Nor did most of them know who George Orwell was, or, well, maybe one or two of them did, because Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had been on the high school reading list.
Later, we stumbled over the cultural problem again. I noted that one of the characters in the book is a Chilean novelist who had been in Chile in 1973 at the time of the overthrow of Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet and the American CIA. Again, I felt the chilling abyss-like vacuum in the room. They hadn’t heard of Salvador Allende or Chile in the 1970s, much less the Chilean novelist character in Cercas’s book. “Um, I’ll tell you about it,” I said, my bird-chirpy feathers slightly drooping.
I didn’t ask them whether they’d ever heard of the Soviet Union, which had expired in 1991, or thereabouts, a year or two after their births. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer. And I just straight-out told them that the battle of Salamis, between the Greeks and the Persians, happened in 480 BCE, and that the story, if they were interested, is told in Herodotus’s Histories. No doubt I’m exaggerating the extent of their ignorance but, I mean, how do you discuss a novel about the nature of historical memory with people who have no historical memory?
The problem isn’t exclusive to ill-educated North American university students. The problem of how to address the historical memory of the Spanish Civil War was one that Cercas faced in Spain, and his elegant solution to the problem is one of the reasons that Soldiers of Salamis became a prize-winning bestseller in his native land.
As the Irish-born novelist Colm Toibin, who lived in Barcelona for a time and wrote a book about it, Homage to Barcelona (1990), explains in his review of Cercas, “The transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain after the death of Franco in 1975 was a model of decorum, choreographed with skill. There were to be no recriminations against the old regime, which was to be consigned to the dustbin of history through silence rather than show trials… The silence worked wonders; it allowed for a new constitution, great autonomy for the regions, and a strong sense of democracy… But strangely, in those years of easy and friendly freedoms, the silence exerted its sinister power and influence in the private realm more than in the public, and there, in families and villages, it did a great deal of harm.” Toibin adds, “History resided then in locked memories, half-told stories, unread archives. In some families the silence was complete; the children, as they grew up in the bright new democracy, simply did not know what their parents had done in the war.”
For a new generation, that of Cercas (he was born in 1962), the time had come to unlock some of those memories, to re-tell those half-told tales, to read the unread archives. “The civil war as a battle between good and evil,” Toibin notes, “no longer works in Spain. Just as on the right, no one wants to be reminded of the cruelties in the name of fascism, on the left, no one is proud of what happened either.” Instead, as Toibin says, “Forgetting and reconciliation have made their way into the core of Spanish political life.” Today, a story merely telling of the bravery of the Republican left and the evil of the fascist right “would seem to some too simple, too old-fashioned; and to others too obvious to be of any interest.” What Cercas has managed to do is enact in the pages of Soldiers of Salamis “the same process of reconciliation which Spain has been striving for, while reminding readers, with considerable tact and some wryness, that the shadow of the civil war is a shadow they live with, and that what creates this shadow continues, whether they like it or not, to obscure the light.”
It is that achievement, of allowing the past “beauty and the possibility of redemption,” of telling a tale that “is not a story of tragedy, although there is tragedy all around it, but of the irony of history,” that accounts for Cercas’s book not only winning most of his country’s major literary prizes, but achieving a national popular success, selling more than half a million copies in Spain alone.
Those factors, astutely delineated by Toibin, don’t fully account for its enthusiastic reception by critics outside Spanish-speaking lands, or its winning the British newspaper Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize for 2004. For readers not directly engaged by the delicate issues that engross Spanish readers, the reason that Soldiers of Salamis is one of the notable books of the decade must have something to do with its more generally applicable investigation of the questions of historical memory and of storytelling itself.
I’m partial, I notice, to writing that moves back and forth across the always permeable boundary between true tales and made-up stories. The interesting thing about this kind of genre-bending is that the writer can approach the borders of truth and fiction from either side of the divide.
In contemporary non-fiction, the use of novelistic techniques to tell a true story became widespread in North America with the appearance of what was called “the new journalism” in the 1960s and 70s. Books like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), about two murderers in the American Midwest, which was labelled a “non-fiction novel”; Michael Herr’s hallucinogenic Dispatches (1977), about the Vietnam War; and the “gonzo” writings of J. Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe are exemplars of the method. The masterpiece of the genre is Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night (1968), an account of an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, D.C. in which the novelist Mailer appears as a picaresque third-person character that the author (Mailer) treats with no more solemnity or piety than he bestows on the rest of the cast he assembles on the steps of the American Pentagon.
The tangled boundaries of truth and fiction can equally be reached from the fictional side. The roman a clef, in which a true story is only lightly fictionalized, such as Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein (2000), a portrait of his friend, the social critic and scholar Allan Bloom, is one way of doing it. Philip Roth’s novel Operation Shylock (1993), in which Roth appears as “Philip Roth” and other actual historical figures make substantial appearances, is another and more elaborate way of blending fiction and truth. Tomas Eloy Martinez’s elegant Santa Evita (1995), the story of the eerily peripatetic corpse of Eva Peron, is one more strategy for getting at certain strange realities.
I should mention, just to dispell any possible misunderstandings, that I’m not talking about purportedly true stories that are exposed as false. The scandal of the decade in this category was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (2003), a so-called “misery memoir” about the author’s recovery from various addictions that two years and a million copies later was revealed to contain significant elements that were false. That’s not the mixture of truth and fiction under consideration here.
While I’m at it, it’s also appropriate to note that self-reflexiveness in fiction, in which the author talks about himself and about the book we’re reading, as Cercas does, is not, as is often suggested, a recent “postmodern” invention of the late 20th century. Novelists have been doing this sort of thing ever since Cervantes, Sterne, Defoe, and Denis Diderot put quill to paper in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Of all the novels prior to Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis that play with real and fictional persons, while challenging the conventions of the novel, the masterpiece of the form is the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller (1990). It’s the account of a young anthropology student who literally goes native, joining a tribe in the Amazonian jungle whose central and binding figure, because of the tribe’s ecologically scattered state, is a “storyteller.” In fact, Vargas Llosa’s novel is the story of two storytellers. It’s not only about the man who becomes a tribal storyteller, but also about the unnamed narrator, who is obviously Vargas Llosa himself. Apart from the uncertain identity of the storyteller whom Vargas Llosa claims was a friend and university classmate of his, all other aspects of the book, from references to various Peruvian professors to an account of Vargas Llosa’s own adventures as a storyteller on Peruvian TV, appear to be purely factual.
Vargas Llosa’s challenge in writing The Storyteller was the problem of creating the tribal storyteller’s perspective, as he confesses in the pages of his novel. “Why, in the course of all those years, had I been unable to write my story about storytellers?” Vargas Llosa asks. “The answer I used to offer myself, each time I threw the half-finished manuscript of that elusive story into the wastebasket, was the difficulty of inventing, in Spanish and within a logically consistent intellectual framework, a literary form that would suggest, with any reasonable degree of credibility, how a primitive man with a magico-religious mentality would go about telling a story.” In the end, Vargas Llosa “makes it up,” writing a series of credible chapters in the voice of the tribal storyteller. In a sense, Vargas Llosa, in writing a “true tale,” is forced to “make it up” in order for the story to become real. That is, there are some “true” stories in which fiction is imperative. It’s the necessity of fiction that turns Javier Cercas’s Soldiers from simply an ingenious book into one of the memorable novels of the decade.
Cercas’s monograph on the life of Sanchez Mazas is, as Cercas might say, “good but not great.” It provides an account of an upper middle-class gentleman, born at the end of the 19th century whose literary ambitions lead him both to poetry and a journalistic stint in Italy in the 1920s, where he becomes an admirer of the Italian fascist Mussolini. On his return to Spain, he helps to found the Falange, Spain’s version of fascist ideology, and though personally mild-mannered, his violent rhetoric in numerous articles and speeches, ultimately contributes to the deaths of thousands of his countrymen in a civil war, even though he personally makes good on his promise to protect his “forest friends” from recrimination and jailing after the war. Making use of the testimonies of the “forest friends” and other surviving documentation, Cercas reconstructs in some detail the central episode in Sanchez Mazas’s life, his near execution and the inexplicable act of mercy by a Republican soldier who doesn’t shoot him. After Franco’s triumph, Sanchez Mazas serves briefly as a minister in the Nationalist government, but soon retires, on inherited wealth, to a fading and rather melancholy literary life as an obscure minor writer that ends only with his peaceful death in 1966.
At first, Cercas reads the manuscript he’s written in a white heat euphorically. “At the second rereading my euphoria gave way to disappointment: the book wasn’t bad, but insufficient… it was missing a part. The worse of it was I didn’t know what part it was.” He confesses his failure to Conchi. “Shit!” Conchi replies, “Didn’t I tell you not to write about a fascist? …What you have to do is forget all about that book and start another one. How about one on Garcia Lorca?” Cercas slumps into writerly despair, plopping himself down in “an armchair in front of the television without turning it on.”
The depressed author cuts his book-writing leave short and returns to the newspaper, where his editor takes pity on him and suggests that he get out of the office and conduct a series of interviews with various transplanted intellectuals, businessmen and athletes who have settled in Catalonia. One of the first persons Cercas interviews is the Chilean-born novelist Roberto Bolano, a man in his late 40s with “the unmistakable air of a hippy peddler that afflicted so many Latin Americans of his generation exiled in Europe.” Although Cercas mentions that Bolano, after years of penury, had recently won a major literary prize, most English speaking readers wouldn’t have recognized Bolano’s name at the time that Cercas was writing. (Though Cercas doesn’t say so, the prize was for Bolano’s novel, The Savage Detectives, published in Spanish in 1998, but only posthumously translated into English in 2007.)
Cercas gives us a thumbnail sketch of Bolano’s life, which includes, in addition to his Chilean birth and an adolescence in Mexico, a short stint as a would-be revolutionary in Salvador Allende’s Chile in the early 1970s, brief imprisonment in General Augusto Pinochet’s subsequently authoritarian Chile, followed by exile in Mexico, and then a wandering resettlement in Europe, some complicated medical problems concerning his liver (which will ultimately foreshorten Bolano’s life; he died in 2003), and finally a rather ascetic literary life with his wife and children in a small Catalonian coastal town. We’re filled in on this background as Cercas and Bolano are having a drink at a bar down by the harbour and talking about Pinochet. “Naturally, I asked him what it’d been like to live through Pinochet’s coup and the fall of Allende. Naturally, he regarded me with an expression of utter boredom,” Cercas reports.
Then Bolano replies, “Like a Marx Brothers’ movie, but with corpses. Unimaginable pandemonium… Look, I’ll tell you the truth. For years I spat on Allende’s name every chance I got. I thought it was all his fault, for not giving us weapons. Now I kick myself for having said that about Allende… [He] thought about us as if we were his kids, you know? He didn’t want them to kill us. And if he’d let us have those guns we would have died like flies. So… I think Allende was a hero.”
“And what’s a hero?” Cercas asks.
Bolano pauses, then says, “I don’t know. Someone who considers himself a hero and gets it right. Or someone who has courage and an instinct for virtue, and therefore never makes a mistake, or at least doesn’t make a mistake the one time when it matters, and therefore can’t not be a hero. Or someone, like Allende, who understands that a hero isn’t the one who kills, but the one who doesn’t kill or who lets himself get killed. I don’t know. What’s a hero to you?”
The answer to that question, it will turn out, is the epic subject matter of Cercas’s book. A week later, when the interview is published, Bolano phones to tell Cercas he’d liked the piece. “Are you sure I said all that about heroes?” Bolano asks.
‘Word for word,’ I answered, suddenly suspicious, thinking the initial praise was just a preamble to the reproaches, and that Bolano was one of those loquacious interviewees who attribute all their verbal indiscretions to journalists’ spite, negligence or frivolity. ‘I’ve got it on tape.’
“No shit! Well, it sounded pretty good!” Bolano reassures him, and suggests they meet for lunch the next day since Bolano has to be in Gerona to update his residence permit. So, they spend a rambling day together, talking about the vicissitudes of writing, life, and all the rest. At the end of the day, in a hotel bar near the train station, between cups of tea for the liver-damaged Bolano and gin and tonics for the depressed Cercas, Bolano tells him, almost as accidentally as Ferlosio told Cercas about his father, the heroic story of Miralles. He’s an old battle-scarred warrior who’d fought in Spain to the very end, then crossed into France, joined the Foreign Legion, got shipped to North Africa where he fought the Italian fascists, then back to Europe to fight the Nazis in World War II. A quarter-century after the wars, in the late 1970s, Bolano had gotten to know the ancient veteran, then a French resident living in Dijon, at a Catalan summer caravan camp where Bolano was working as a watchman.
It’s a good story, as Cercas reprises Bolano’s version of it, of a warrior for whom the war never ends, and for whom the dead, although dead, never go away. As they’re walking to the train, Cercas asks Bolano if in all the subsequent years he’d ever heard anything more about Miralles.
‘Nothing,’ he answered. ‘I lost track of him, like so many people. Who knows where he is now. Maybe he still goes to the campsite; but I don’t think so. He’d be over eighty… Maybe he still lives in Dijon. Or maybe he’s dead, really. I guess that’s the most likely, no? Why do you ask?’
‘No reason,” I said.
But it wasn’t true.
Sometime in the middle of the night, something clicks. “And at that moment, with the deceptive but overwhelming clarity of insomnia, like someone who finds, by unbelievable chance, having already given up the search (because a person never finds what he’s searching for, only what reality delivers), the missing part… I heard myself murmur, in the pitch-black silence of the bedroom: ‘It’s him.'”
After checking with Bolano to make sure that the Chilean isn’t already writing the story of Miralles, he tells Bolano what’s on his mind. “You’ve got a hell of a novel there,” Bolano enthusiastically replies. “I knew you were writing something.”
“I’m not writing,” Cercas insists. “And it’s not a novel. It’s a story with real events and characters.”
“Same difference,” Bolano replies. “All good tales are true tales, at least for those who read them, which is all that counts.”
There is, of course, a Miralles at the end of the always circuitous search, after the almost-giving-up, the dead-ends, the clues that fade away. In fact, during one of the impasses, Bolano says to Cercas, “You’ll have to make it up.”
“Make what up?” Cercas asks.
“The interview with Miralles. It’s the only way you can finish the novel,” Bolano tells him.
Either way, made-up or not, there’s an old man at the end of the road, or sitting in the TV room of an old people’s home in Dijon, and he hasn’t forgotten anything. Yes, he was at the sanctuary of Collell in the last days of the Spanish Civil War; yes, he knew Sanchez Mazas (“How could I not know? He was the biggest of the big shots”); and yes or no, was he the gun-toting soldier in the woods who looked Sanchez Mazas in the eye before saying, “There’s no one here,” and turning away?
Readers of this story that mixes real people, whether historical figures like Sanchez Mazas, or contemporary ones like the Catalan “forest friends” and Bolano, with “fictionalized” real people, like Cercas himself, as well as imaginary characters, such as Conchi, will no doubt wonder about the status of Miralles. Does he exist? Did Bolano really know such a person? Did Cercas actually find and interview him? One way of looking at Cercas’s book is to see it as a demonstration of what a really good writer does when he or she runs out of facts. In the end, we simply don’t know what the factual truth is, and we don’t care because the tension between it and invention, if the writer is good enough, more than compensates. If Miralles is fictional, the fiction is imperative.
For Cercas, he gets closer, perhaps only in imagination, to one of the “essential secrets”: the meaning of the look in the hero’s eyes. If there’s no yes or no answer to any of this, there is this:
Beneath the sodden hair and wide forehead and eyebrows covered in raindrops, the soldier’s look doesn’t express compassion or hatred, or even disdain, but a kind of secret or unfathomable joy, something verging on cruelty, something that resists reason, but nor is it instinct, something that remains there with the same blind stubbornness with which blood persists in its course and the earth in its immovable orbit and all beings in their obstinate condition of being…
But that’s not what’s on the mind of Miralles. It’s not his act of heroism that he returns to, but the dead.
Sometimes I dream of them and then I feel guilty. I see them all: intact and greeting me with jokes, just as young as they were then, because time doesn’t pass for them… and they ask me why I’m not with them as if I’d betrayed them, because my place was there…
“At some point Miralles had started to cry,” Cercas says, “his face and his voice hadn’t changed, but inconsolable tears streamed down the smooth channel of his scar, rolling more slowly down his unshaven cheeks.”
Nobody remembers them, you know? Nobody. Nobody even remembers why they died, why they didn’t have a wife and children and a sunny room; nobody remembers, least of all, those they fought for. There’s no lousy street in any lousy town in any fucking country named after them, nor will there ever be. Understand? You understand, don’t you? Oh, but I remember, I do remember, I remember them all, Lela and Joan and Gabi and Odena and Pipo and Brugada and Gudayol, I don’t know why I do but I do, not a single day goes by that I don’t think of them.
Old heroes don’t think about their heroic deeds, but about the innocence of those who were once alive.
Berlin, Apr. 18, 2009.