Ambiguity and Historical Interpretation in Javier Cercas’
Soldados de Salamina
The thirty four
editions, all of
which appeared in three years, the translations into several languages
screen adaptation by the Spanish film director David Trueba, speak for
themselves about the publishing success that Soldiers of
Salamis (1) had in
Generally, the memories which are most likely to be remembered by the community are both the heroic and the tragic ones; those that conjure fundamental myths of countries […], and those that mark a severe rupture of the national identity (e.g. the civil wars). [My translation] (356)
The novel tells the
true story of
Rafael Sánchez Mazas’ almost execution. Sánchez Mazas is
fascist writer and founder, together with José Antonio Primo de
of Falange Española. (3) Javier Cercas,
a young journalist, discovers
by chance Sánchez Mazas’ story and decides to reconstruct it.
exile, the Spanish loyalist troops are heading for
The novel is structured
chapters. The first one focuses on the search for pieces of information
documents that the narrator Cercas has to carry out to reconstruct
Sánchez Mazas’ story. The second one, on the other hand,
represents both the reconstruction of the events the fascist writer
through, and the book which he had promised to the deserters and
had helped him survive. In this book within a book Sánchez Mazas
have supposedly told everything that happened during those days. Yet,
wrote the book during his real life. And the third chapter deals with
of Miralles, the militiaman who lets Sánchez Mazas go. Miralles
eighty year old man now and the narrator Cercas finds him in an asylum
the city of
The interpretation the
Javier Cercas gives to the recent history of
The first discursive ethic code, as opposed to the “franquista” official discourse, is employed to characterize the 1931-1936 Republic established as a “legitimate political system”. When the narrator Cercas talks about Sánchez Mazas’ progressively renouncing the public sphere, he asserts about the latter: “And, moreover, of course, he didn’t regret having contributed with all his forces to the start of a war against a legitimate Republic” [My translation] (134). The quote can seem anecdotic, but it is not, if we remember the process of enculturation that the “Franquismo” put to work during forty years. (5) Part of this enculturation consisted in the spreading of the belief that the loyalist army of the Republic was actually a rebel army which was also called the “red hordes”. According to “Franquismo” enculturation, the “National Army”, that is the fascist army, made war in order to reestablish a fictitious preexistent political order. (6)
Secondly, after two
thirds of the novel,
the author exchanges Sánchez Mazas for a new hero: the
militiaman Miralles. The two characters share the forgetfulness of the
History. For Gómez
López-Quiñones that paradox is the very vertebral column
narration (120). Referring to Sánchez Mazas, the narrator Cercas
several times, throughout the novel, Andrés Trapiello’s
about fascist writers: “They won the war, but they lost the History of
Literature” [My translation] (22). (7) As far
as Miralles is
concerned, he represents the forgetfulness of the democratic society
those who fought for freedom in the Civil War:
-Shut up and listen to me, young man -he said-. Answer me! Do you think that anyone thanked me? I will tell you: nobody. Nobody ever thanked me for spending my youth fighting for your shitty country. Nobody. Not even a single word. Not a gesture, not a letter. Nothing. (175)
This change towards a more “politically correct” tone may have been caused by a publicity interest. Another, more complex interpretation is related to the fact that, on many occasions, in the novel, the narrator talks about his father’s death. We know that this death is one of the causes by which the narrator Cercas became really depressed right before the beginning of the plot. But, although we know this loss affects the narrator profoundly, he does not give us any information about his father. The narrator Cercas states in the end of the book: “Then, I thought it was not me who remembered my father, but it was him who was holding on to my memory, so as not to die entirely” [My translation] (187). Nevertheless, this absence in the novel leads us to conceive problematic relations between the narrator Cercas and his father. At two different points in the novel, we can notice how the narrator Cercas is trying to find a father in Miralles. First, when he correlates his father’s age to Miralles’ age: “I thought Miralles has the same age as my father would have if he was alive” [My translation] (187). Second, in the last pages of the book, when the narrator Cercas is returning to Spain after his meeting with Miralles, he fantasizes about creating some sort of family with Miralles, Conchi (the narrator Cercas’ extravagant girlfriend), Roberto Bolaños (the friend who gave him the one last clue to find Miralles), and Bolaños’ wife: “and we would form an odd or impossible family, and then Miralles definitely would stop being an orphan (and maybe so would I) and Conchi would feel the terrible nostalgia of having a baby (and maybe so would I)” [My translation] (206). (8)
Author Javier Cercas’ real family was “falangista”. In the above mentioned examples, we can notice a kind of “killing the (“falangista”) father” complex. In any case, the real Cercas feels a cultural guilt assuming somewhat the responsibility for the beginning of the war. This phenomenon is represented in the novel in the need the narrator feels to appropriate the republican identity and to look for a paternal relation with Miralles. (9)
second discursive ethic code, Cercas puts in question the
interpretative ethic values of democracy. The representation of this
the narration can be summarized in Herzberges’ definition of the
novel of the present time:
According to Herzberges’ definition, Cercas’s novel is a dissident narration, standing not only against the dictatorship moral code, but also against the democratic one. We can see this point in the way that Cercas presents the historic character of Sánchez Mazas. A good part of the novel is about the vindication of this fascist writer. His work was progressively forgotten; it was ignored even during the “franquista” period. It was interpreted from a political point of view during the “Transición” when the left dominated literary criticism. The narrator’s counter cultural point of view stands out when he asserts that Sánchez Mazas’ real interest in fascism was purely esthetical: “Some naïf people like the guardians of the leftist orthodoxy […] denounce that to vindicate a “falangista” writer was to vindicate […] “falangismo” [My translation] (22).
Cercas tries to separate the judgment of the literary work from the
moral judgment. He tries to vindicate the literary figure he considers
to be a
good writer and, at the same time, the man who carries the main
for the Spanish Civil War. The narrator Cercas underlines at one point
Cercas’s explanation in brackets is significant and appears repeatedly throughout the book in relation with the value judgments concerning Sánchez Mazas. These explanations point out the uncertainty of the author when it comes to giving an opinion about the writer.
Moreover, the narrator presents Sánchez Mazas as an aristocratic and decadent poet. For example, the narrator excuses the violence of Falange Española by stating that violence was not typical of the founders of Falange. He describes them as a group of writers who were simply concerned with beauty and the sublime. From his point of view, violence had been unavoidably inherited from the past: “Violence came from before and despite of the victimizing protests of some leaders of the party who were refractory to it because of their temperament and their formation” [My translation] (87-8).
seems even to exonerate Sánchez Mazas from any
responsibility and he puts in question the importance of the latter’s
role in the outbreak of the Civil War. The narrator represents
Mazas as a poet who dreamed of the reconstruction of a mythical past.
Cercas the writer’s interest in fascism was purely esthetic:
Or, in other words: maybe, for Sánchez Mazas, fascism was merely the political intention of bringing to life his poetry, of creating the world he melancholically conjured up in his poetry – the abolished, invented and impossible world of Paradise. [My translation] (82). (10)
Finally, the narrator presents Sánchez Mazas as a product of his time, as a subject without agency, and determined by the historic circumstances in which he happened to live. We discussed this point earlier on, when talking about how the narrator describes violence as inherited from the past. At another point in the novel, for example, the narrator says that Sánchez Mazas’ belonging to the fascist party was a circumstantial consequence of his travel to Italy as a reporter of the newspaper ABC: “No matter, it is true that he enthusiastically welcomed the March towards Rome […] and that he saw in Benito Mussolini the reincarnation of the renaissance condotieros” [My translation] (82).
Following that, the
a distinction between the idearium
and history of Falange Española and the idearium
and history of the “Franquismo” and defines
them as opposite. He contrasts the two historical figures José
Primo de Rivera and general Francisco Franco Bahamonte. During the
years of democracy in
[…] the ideas and lifestyle, […] were, in time, converted to the lifestyle and ideas that had been initially adopted as revolutionary, avantgarde ideology because of the urgency of the war. These ideas were turned into an ornamental ideology by the fat, womanish, incompetent, astute and conservative military man who thus usurped them. These ideas and lifestyle were finally converted in the, more and more rotten and deprived of significance, paraphernalia against which a group of loons fought for forty years seeking to justify their shitty regime. [My translation] (86)
The quote is long, but highly significant. In this text, and generally throughout the novel, Falange Española is presented as a group of idealist writers, circumstantially involved in politics. According to Cercas, the “franquista” apparatus used them for evil purposes.
Third of all, the novel displays a positive perspective on fascism which, as opposed to the faulty democratic liberalism, is presented as a newly created historical product. Curiously enough, Cercas finds that fascism and communism share a characteristic which sets them both apart from liberalism: “César Arconada […] summarized the feeling a lot of people of his age shared when he declared that “a young man can be a communist, a fascist, anything but he cannot have any liberal ideas”. [My translation] (84)
Cercas does not choose
this quote randomly.
César Arconada was a communist writer exiled in the
The third ethic code in
is the code of the “franquista” enculturation. Throughout forty
years, the “franquista” apparatus created all mechanisms of thought control which, according to
Marvin Harris, a modern state can put to work: public spectacles, mass
universal education (217-8). In Soldados
de Salamina the elements of the “franquista” code look very
diffuse if this code is not carefully delimited. The “Franquismo”
had two discourses regarding the Civil War: the first one was public
official, the second one was private. (13) I am not
going to describe the first
one because it is the most well known and, in my opinion, it cannot be
to interpret this novel. By contrast, the latter is present throughout
text. Inevitably, the Spanish “franquista” society developed a feeling
of guilt for the outbreak of the Civil War. The latter was supposed to
be a military
intervention, similar to the XIXth century Spanish military tradition
at taking the power transitorily without creating a long term state
it failed and provoked one of the most shockingly fratricidal wars in
history of humanity. Unlike the victorious public discourse, the
described the Civil War as a war of “brothers against brothers”.
leads the victorious party to appropriate a discourse according to
could both share responsibility with the defeated and create the
it was an inevitable conflict. Thus, the discourse of the winning side
the myth of Castille as a cainitic land and applied it to the entire
This discourse can be noticed at different points in Soldados de Salamina. Indeed, Cercas actually employs the adjective “cainita” in the text. When describing the literary activity of Rafael Sánchez Mazas, the narrator says: “a main goal […] was basically to save all possible quotes […] that could be used to justify the cainitic war which was to come” [My translation] (85).
The novel emphasizes
of brotherly communion between republicans and nationals both prior to
following the war. For example, the narrator describes the meetings of
leaders of the still in embryo Falange in the basement of the
They argued strongly, until late at night, about politics and literature, and they met, in an unlikely atmosphere of cordiality, young leftist writers with whom they shared ideas and beers and conversations and jokes and cordial insults. [My translation] (87)
The text goes on to
talk about the breakdown
of this brotherly cordiality between fascist and leftist writers
because of the
beginning of the Civil War. The Civil War and the dissolution it
brought about were
both unrelated to them and inevitable:
The beginning of the war turned the devoted and elusive hostility into a real hostility, although the inevitable damage of public life during the 30’s already announced, to whoever wanted to see it, the imminence of the change. [My translation] (87)
A similar moment of brotherhood, now during the war, occurs in Collell Abbey where Sánchez Mazas is a prisoner before his planned execution. During one of the walks which the prisoners are allowed by the guardians, one of the militiamen -the one who is later going to save the writer’s life and who will be known as Miralles- starts singing the pasodoble Suspiros de España and dances with his gun as he would with a woman. This leads to a moment of comradeship between prisoners and guardians. In Sánchez Mazas own words:
Before finish dancing the song, somebody said his name and insulted him mildly and, in that moment, it was as if the spell had broken; many started to laugh or smile, we started to laugh, prisoners and guardians, all of us. I think that was the first time I had laughed in a long time. [My translation] (122)
With reference to this
Cercas establishes a connection between Sánchez Mazas and
writers and politicians. In the novel, the narrator tells us how the
Mazas had bought a house together with José Bergamín
war. The fact that Bergamín was communist is emphasized in the
We also find out that Sánchez Mazas had asked Franco to change
penalty of the poet Miguel Hernández into life prison. The
latter was dying
in the prison of
Nevertheless, the most
element of the cainitic discourse of the Civil War in the text is
article which he publishes in the provincial newspaper where he works.
article has as topic the sixtieth anniversary of Antonio Machado’s
during his exile in
strike caught Manuel in
This text represents the cainitic myth of the Spanish Civil War - two brothers separated by destiny find themselves in two antagonist sides of a war they have nothing to do with.
structure applies in
this same article to Sánchez Mazas´ story. Cercas employs
ethic judgment to connect Antonio Machado’s death to Sánchez
execution. At the time, the former
was already in exile on the French side of the border while the latter
prisoner of the republican militia, on the Spanish side of the border.
emphasizes the similarities of the two stories:
I imagined then, that the symmetry and contrast between these two terrible stories –close to being a chiasm of History- may have not been casual and that, if I could be able to tell everything in the same article, this strange parallelism could give the events a new significance. (23)
This last assertion is
since it is an interpretative pattern of history, which, as we saw,
the “franquismo”. Talking about the
novel, Jo Labanyi states in the book Myth
and History in the Contemporary Spanish Novel:
The aim continues to be that of “desmythification”, with the important difference that novelists now show an awareness of the fact that language inevitably mysthifies reality and that the writer approximates to reality not by “describing it as it is”, but by exposing the falsifications perpetrated by language –that of others and the writer’s own. (52)
of Salamis is, therefore, an explicit questioning of language as a
of the past, which uses preexistent myths to narrate the past, and of
authenticity of both the historic discourse and the collective memoir.
entire novel is based on the idea that the text is not actually a
novel, but a “real”
narration. It centers on the story of the real life writer and
Cercas, the real execution story of the real life Rafael Sánchez
and, what the novel wants us to believe is the “real” story of
the militiaman that let him escape. Only the execution of Rafael
Mazas happened entirely as presented in the novel. The character
his story are entirely fictional. The story of the real life writer and
journalist Javier Cercas’ is a mixture of reality and fiction. (15) In my
opinion, Soldiers of Salamis is an
example of Labanyi’s idea that, for the last thirty years, language has
not been employed in the Spanish historical novel to describe reality.
contrary, it has been trying to call our attention to the paradoxes and
ambiguities occurring when events are represented in language. The
Cercas talks about this issue throughout the novel, for example when he
regarding his sources of information: “I asked myself whether these
narrations were in agreement with the truth or if, maybe inevitably,
they were painted
with varnish by this mass of half truths and lies.” (62) Soldiers
Published in 2001, Soldiers of Salamis is a product of the particular
social and cultural context that created the memoirist interpretation
recent past in Spanish society. All of this is, of course, related to
War and “Franquismo”. The experience of the Civil War and its dark
end in the “Franquismo” were so traumatic for the Spanish society
that the process of reformulation could not be concluded in these past
years. According to Gómez López-Quiñones:
The Spanish Civil War is still a historic, symbolic and textual space, very dynamic, open and conflicting whose ending or conclusion seems unlikely. The Spanish Civil War can and must still rewrite vindictively because, for many reasons, the democratic transition did not bring about a historiographic and literary discourse for the majority, one that is solid and radical enough to redeem all the excesses and manipulations done for the “Franquista” regime. [My translation] (123)
Following the “forgetfulness” pact during the Spanish
Transition to democracy, from the middle 90’s, the Spanish society
started to slowly leave the voluntary amnesia. (16)
From that moment on,
ambiguous interpretation of the fascist and dictatorial
Working through involves repetition with significant difference –difference that may be desirable when compared with compulsive repetition. In any event, working through is not a linear, teleological, or straightforward developmental (or stereotypically dialectical) process either for the individual or for the collectivity. It requires going back to problems, working them over, and perhaps transforming the understanding of them. (148)
The Spanish historic memoir is “working through” in a reformulating process with a diffuse aim. We can view this aim as an ambiguous interpretative space mediating two opposing points of view: the “mesetarian” guilt driven point of view and the “periferal” victimization point of view. They both share only democratic values and give birth to very different interpretations of History. Soldiers of Salamis, as an example of the “mesetarian” point of view, represents the paradox of having different ethic codes to interpret History.
(3) Falange Española was the Spanish fascist party, ideologically homologous to the Italian Partito Nazionale Fascista of Benito Musolini. Falange supplied Franquismo with a politic structure. We can define Franquismo as the dictatorial regime instituted after the Spanish Civil War by the traditionalist general Francisco Franco Bahamonte. It lasted forty years. The source of this piece of information is Javier Tusell´s monograph La dictarura de Franco. This book is an excellent classic study on the nature and evolution of general Franco’s regime, and its relation with the fascist ideology.
(4) I am mentioning two Javier Cércas-s in this work: the writer of the book, and the protagonist of the book who is writing a book of his own. The meta-narration can make my exegesis confusing. I will refer to the first one as the author Cercas, and to the second one as the narrator Cercas.
(5) Marvin Harris defines “enculturation” as “a partly conscious and partly unconscious learning experience whereby the older generation invites, induces, and compels the younger generation to adopt traditional ways of thinking and behaving” (7). During forty years general Franco’s dictatorship imposed an entire reading of history and a new moral code which penetrated society, especially the future generations during the war, in many different ways. I will refer again to this process in the analysis of the third discursive ethic code of Soldados de Salamina.
(6) We can find a very concrete example of this in the “franquista” legislation. The political system of the “Franquismo” based its legal apparatus on the “Leyes Fundamentales”. War prisoners and exiled people were judged for the delinquency of having rebelled against the state and the laws of the Dictatorship that had been established after the war!!!
(8) Roberto Bolaños is
another character taken
from real life. Roberto Bolaños (1953-2003) is a very well known
writer. Some of his more popular books are Los
detectives salvajes, El gaucho
insufrible and 2666, the novel he
left unconcluded upon his death. Bolaños lived several times
his life in
(9) Another element that supports this idea is the fact that the novel has two heroes: Sánchez Mazas and Miralles. Cercas would have chosen the “falangista” writer, but he finally chose the old republican ex-militiaman.
(11) After the Spanish Civil War, all the parties and politic associations that were not forbidden were grouped by Franco in one unique party with a strong bureaucratic character. According with Javier Tusell, the “franquismo” differs from fascism in its Italian version, since the former did not have as purpose a revolution of the values and the creation of a moral and political new man. The “franquismo” had as target the political demobilization of the Spanish society. The main groups or political families that formed the Movimiento Nacional were: the fascists of Falange Española, the “carlistas”, the monarchists and the ultraconservatives or traditionalists.
(12) It is interesting to notice the place of Sánchez Mazas and Arconada in the Manual de Literatura Española edited by Felipe Pedraza. Both of them have a very small rubric. The former appears in the chapter titled “Writers of the 50’s: Outside the Dominant Tendencies” and the sub rubric “Esthetic Writers”. The latter appears in the chapter “Writer of the Period of the Avangarde” and the sub rubric “Social Realism”.
(13) I am extrapolating this idea from the book Así se hizo la Transición by Victoria Prego. This journalist gathers in this book materials she had collected as research for the preparation of the homonymous TV series. The book is, generally, superficial in its historic analysis and it often appears to be simply anecdotic, but it is an infinite source of first hand testimonial pieces of information. One such piece of information is the double discourse, both political and private, of the “franquista” politicians.
(14) The myth of Castille as “Cain’s land” is a discourse that appears repeatedly in the entire cultural production of Castille. The first text where we can see this mythical structure is probably the Primera Crónica General de España or Estoria de España written by the king Alfonso X el Sabio in the XIIIth century. This chronicle tells the story of Fernando I, the very first king of Castille, and of his access to power following his killing of his brother, don García (484-6).
The most recent, and the most well known,
before the Civil War is the chapter “La tierra de Alvar
González” comprising ballads by Antonio Machado in his book Campos de Castilla, edited in 1912.
These are narrative ballads written in the traditional form of
“romance”. They tell the story of Alvar González’s
killing by his sons. The latter wanted to come into possession of the
which was left to them through inheritance (517-41). We have to
Antonio Machado and all the members of the Generación del 98
(15) Cercas explains this mixture of reality and fiction as a reaction against those who claim that the novel is dead. In an interview for ClubCultura.com, Cercas assertes: “it is an argument against the people that claim that the novel is dead, because the novel is the most malleable genre. […] I have mixed reality and fiction, but it is possible to make this and thousands of other things”.
(16) Throughout the novel, this pact of forgetfulness that facilitated the Transition to Democracy is alluded to many times in a contemptuous manner. For example, when the novel is just about to finish, Miralles says to the narrator Cercas:
-Shut up and listen to me, young man -he said-. Answer me! Do you think that anyone has ever thanked me? I will answer: nobody. Nobody has ever thanked me for spending my youth fighting for your shitty country. Nobody. Not even a single word. Not a gesture, not a letter.
“Out of all stories of History”, I thought while Miralles was talking, “the History of Spain is the saddest one, because it always finishes in a bad way.” Then, I thought: “Does it always finish in a bad way?.” I thought: The Transition was a big bullshit!” (175)
(17) It is possible to
culturally distinguish between
two kinds of Spaniards: “mesetarios” and
“periféricos”. The first ones belong culturally to the two
extended valleys in the centre of the
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