SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis)’ by Javier Cercas

Soldiers of Salamis

In the final moments of the Spanish Civil War, fifty prominent Nationalist prisoners are executed by firing squad. Among them is the writer and fascist Rafael Sanchez Mazas. As the guns fire, he escapes into the forest, and can hear a search party and their dogs hunting him down. The branches move and he finds himself looking into the eyes of a militiaman, and faces death for the second time that day. But the unknown soldier simply turns and walks away. Sanchez Mazas becomes a national hero and the soldier disappears into history. As Cercas sifts the evidence to establish what happened, he realises that the true hero may not be Sanchez Mazas at all, but the soldier who chose not to shoot him. Who was he? Why did he spare him? And might he still be alive?

~

Soldiers of Salamis was first released in Spanish in 2001, just one year after the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory was founded, set on carrying out the task of excavating bodies left hidden after the Spanish Civil War. The author took on the subject of the war in a time when he felt many of his generation were not talking on the subject, and the 2007 Historical Memory Law, giving the task of digging up the past a mainstream light,  was still far away.  In a time when some voices were still just starting to be heard gain, this book clearly points out that history is merely the opinion of who tells the story, and a hero and villain can be hard to identify when faced with individual tales.

The book is put into three parts. The first tells the story of a journalist, given the same name as the author, who decides to find more about the story of founding fascist Rafael Sánchez Mazas. After an interview with the son of Sánchez Mazas, he writes an article on the man, but decides to find out more. He goes on to find the revealing tale of the night Sánchez Mazas is to be executed in the forest, and the Republican soldier who hunts for him amongst the trees and finds in him cowering the dark, and yet turns away and lets him live. Sánchez Mazas goes on to struggle to survive in the hills outside Girona, and after being taken in by a generous family, he meets three Republican men, who know that they are about to be the losers of the war. Despite their differences (Sánchez Mazas is the highest living member of the fascist party in Spain) they become friends in a brief yet solidifying time in 1939. The tale is written as if the author is retelling what he has heard, giving it a personal approach.

The second part tells the story of Sánchez Mazas, biography style, of an upper class man who shows great talent for writing, but cares little for publishing his poetry. Married to an Italian, he sees value in Italy’s fascism policies and seeks to recreate such ideals in his home nation. After hiding in the Chilean embassy for the first year of the war, he is then taken prisoner on the ship Uruguay until the end of the war, when he is taken to the countryside to be killed by firing squad. There his miraculous escape occurs.

The third book is more fiction, where the journalist Cercas is determined to seek out the Republican solider who let Sánchez Mazas go free. Cercas meets Miralles, a former French Foreign Legion with a history of brave Civil War tales. Miralles never confirms that he indeed was the soldier who chose to set Sánchez Mazes free, despite the journalist being convinced he has found the right man.

Throughout the book, Sánchez Maza’s little green notebook is mentioned, written as he struggles through the forest with his unlikely friends, who are also the enemy. All men went on to live lives of vastly different stature after the event, and the little notebook attempts to give details and validity of the story of Sánchez Mazas, his firing squad escape and battle for survival.

Most Civil War tales tend to be told from the Republican point of view, but the author chose to see it from the Nationalist point of view instead, and makes no assumptions. Never is Sánchez Mazas considered a hero in the book, and neither are opposing soldiers during a time when Spain changed forever. It shows how each individual was their own man, fighting through the turmoil that erupted around them. A moment of a shared gaze between a fleeing fascist and a Republican, who chose not to pull the trigger is the centre, along with the certainty that men are men, never heroes in war.

Rafael Sánchez Mazas seems to be someone not spoken of often, which seems unusual. A founding member of the Falange, he escaped the fate of his collaborator Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. After spending his pre-war years setting up Falange newspapers and various other publications, and years as a prisoner, he went onto be a minister in Franco’s government, and his sons and grandsons now are also writers. Soldiers of Salamis was translated into English in 2003 and made into a movie in Spain, Soldados de Salamina, the same year. The book was a best-seller in Spain, and I am ashamed to admit it has taken me this long to read the book. It is rare to read a Civil War book which such a lack of prejudice.

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