Heroism, War, and Hell

Republican forces in the city of Irún during the Spanish Civil War (Biblioteca Nacional de Defensa/Wikimedia)

Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, Jay Nordlinger reviews Lord of All the Dead: A Nonfiction Novel, by Javier Cercas, in a translation by Anne McLean. Below is an expanded version of the review.

This is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. And it’s strange that I picked it up in the first place.

In my business, publicists send you books, and, a few months ago, a publicist sent me two by Javier Cercas. I had never heard of him. Come to find out, he is a big figure in his country, Spain, and prominent in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, too.

Cercas is a novelist, journalist, and professor of literature. (Born in 1962.) He has taught not only in Spain, but also at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

One of the books sent to me by the publicist was Soldiers of Salamis, a novel published in 2001. (Huge seller.) The second was the one I’m now writing about, Lord of All the Dead, published in 2017. It is newly available in an English translation by Anne McLean — translator of the Spanish stars of our time.

Both of these books deal with the Spanish Civil War. And there was my problem.

I have nothing against the Spanish Civil War (so to speak). But I had read and heard enough about it. I have even written a little about it, in books and articles. In 2015, I reviewed the big Franco biography by Stanley G. Payne (that outstanding American historian of Spain) and Jesús Palacios. There is a chapter about Franco and his daughter, Carmen, in my book about the sons and daughters of dictators.

There is so much to learn about — or even to be faintly acquainted with — in this crowded world.

Again, no offense, but my feeling on glancing at the Cercas books was, If I never hear another word about Republicans, Nationalists, Franco, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, “Cara al sol,” and all that, it will be too soon.


And yet, the blurbs. Even accounting for the hyperbole of blurbs, the ones for Cercas were . . . shocking. Praise gushed from the lips of Mario Vargas Llosa. I have not heard praise gush too often from the lips of that particular genius. So, in corona-isolation, I picked up Lord of All the Dead, thinking I would read a page or two.

I couldn’t put the book down.

What the hell is this book? The author calls it — in his very subtitle — a “nonfiction novel.” I think this is maybe the only thing he gets wrong. I don’t see it. From what I can tell, the book is a biography, an autobiography, a history — even a journal, to a degree. I think it’s one man’s wrestlings with his family, himself, and his country.

But the word “wrestlings” sounds boring. All we need, another writer, self-absorbed, working out his “issues” on the page. Lord of All the Dead is anything but boring. It is also unlike anything else: strangely original.

The author’s family has a hero: his mother’s uncle, Manuel Mena, who died in the war at age 19. This Manuel was a golden boy, and then — cut down. Cercas grew up hearing about Manuel Mena, especially from his mother. But for Cercas and some other family members, there was a wrinkle: Manuel had died on the Nationalist side.

Cercas is a man of the Left (though not the illiberal Left).

One day, he was talking to his friend David Trueba, a writer and filmmaker. In fact, Trueba made a movie out of that Cercas novel, Soldiers of Salamis. On this day, they were talking about Manuel Mena, the subject that clung to Cercas. Trueba said to him, “I now understand that in Soldiers of Salamis you invented a Republican hero to hide the fact that your family’s hero was a Francoist.” Cercas answered, a touch defensively, “More like a Falangist.”

Cercas did not want to write a Manuel Mena book. He was as reluctant to write it as I was to read it. Frankly, I think he was sick of the Spanish Civil War, too (with greater reason than I had).

Also, how could he face his mother, Manuel Mena’s loving niece? What if, in researching his book, he discovered things that were not very nice? And if he wrote them?

His mother very much wanted him to write the Manuel Mena book. She couldn’t understand why he hadn’t already. He said to her, “And what if you don’t like what you read?” She answered, with a twinkle in her eye, “You’re now trying to say that you write books so that I’ll like them? Talk about shutting the barn door after the horses have fled!”

One of the beauties of this book is the author’s relationship with his mother. You need some of that, for relief from the hell of war, for example.

Reading about Javi and his mom, I thought of Jeb Bush, who once said something charming and completely “relatable.” To the press, his famous, and famously blunt, mother said something embarrassing to Jeb — who shrugged, “Everyone has a mother.”

When you write about the Spanish Civil War, you walk through a minefield, especially if you’re Spanish. David Trueba said to his friend Cercas,

“Are you really going to write another novel about the Civil War? Are you really such a d***head? . . . Whatever you write, some will attack you for idealizing the Republicans, for not denouncing their crimes, and others will accuse you of revisionism or of massaging Francoism to present Francoists as normal, everyday people and not as monsters. That’s how it is: Nobody is interested in the truth. Haven’t you realized that?”

For my money — and I don’t pretend to be an expert — Cercas is a little soft on the Left — on the Republicans — in Lord of All the Dead. I am a Payne guy. But I can tell you, for sure, that Cercas is more a man of letters than he is a man of the Left.

More words from David Trueba, directed to his friend: “If you start worrying about your literary career, what suits or doesn’t suit your literary career, what critics are going to say and stuff like that, you’re dead, man. Worry about writing and forget the rest.”

Lord of All the Dead is about many things, including being a writer. It takes a certain courage to be a writer — a real writer. Anyone can be a less than real one, trimming his sails, tacking and jibing, pleasing the crowd (or his colleagues), making sure to be “where he needs to be.”

Cercas begins his book with an epigraph, a chestnut from Horace: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” — “How sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country.” I can almost hear Patton say, “No: It is sweet and honorable to make the other poor bastard die for his country.” Wilfred Owen, 1,900 years after Horace, referred to “Dulce et decorum,” etc., as “the old Lie.”

And yet, if no one dies for his country — sweetly and honorably or not — you may not have a country.

Seeing as we’ve brought up antiquity, why does Cercas title his book as he does? Achilles, remember, was the ultimate golden boy, cut down in battle. He is to the world — to history and myth — what Manuel Mena is to his family. In The Odyssey, we meet Achilles in the underworld, or rather, Odysseus does. And Achilles delivers himself of these stunning words:

“Illustrious Odysseus, don’t try to console me for my death, for I would rather toil as the slave of a penniless, landless laborer than reign here as lord of all the dead.”

Cercas dedicates himself to finding out everything about Manuel Mena he can. This is not easy, because, in about 1946, there was a sizable bonfire in the village of Ibahernando, in the province of Cáceres, in western Spain: Manuel’s mother, with her sisters around her, was burning all of the hero’s effects: letters, notebooks, photos, clothes, everything. These mementoes were simply too painful to have around.

Trying to “trap the past,” says Cercas, can be like trying to “trap water in your hands.” He is a meticulous researcher, with a “maniacal urge for veracity,” as he says. Yet he does indulge in speculation — informed speculation.

He is apt to write something like this: “I am not a fantasist or a literato.” (He is definitely a literato.) “But if I were, I would say” — and then he goes ahead and says it. He then says, “But I am not a fantasist or a literato.” Naturally, he’s having his cake and eating it, too. But he is not being hypocritical. He knows what he is doing, and he knows we know.

We, too, can imagine how Manuel Mena might have been captured by Fascist rhetoric. Thousands of young men were. José Antonio, the founder of the Falange Española, was a master of Romantic nationalism. When he thundered against the capitalists and the Marxists, and thundered for the People and the Nation, hearts swelled and feet marched. The other side had its own, and similar, seductions.

It was a clash of ugly illiberalisms, the Spanish Civil War. Hardly a true democrat in sight.

Like Spain at large, little Ibahernando, Manuel’s village, was split right down the middle. “There was a bar for the right-wing people and another bar for the left-wing people,” writes Cercas; “one dance for the right-wing people and another dance for the left-wing people.” And people switched sides, seamlessly. I am reminded of Hungarians (among others) who slipped off their Fascist uniform and slipped on their Communist one without breaking a sweat.

Was it all politics, or ideology, in places such as Ibahernando? Oh, not on your life. I love a phrase that Cercas uses: “In revenge for that revenge . . .” Someone would do something, someone would exact revenge for that something, someone else would then exact revenge for that revenge . . .

In Ibahernando, Cercas talks to an old man whose father was killed at the beginning of the war. The old man has never spoken of this before. He can barely speak of it now. He says, “Back then, people got killed over any little thing. Over arguments. Out of envy. Because someone exchanged four words with someone. For anything. That’s how the war was.”

Lord of All the Dead is, among other things, a feat of organization. Cercas not only writes the book, he writes about writing the book. He goes from past to present, and present to past, always logically, even unnoticeably. (This confirms the logic.) Sometimes he refers to himself in the third person.

As I’ve said, a strange book.

And marvelously written. There are many observations such as the following: “. . . watching us with the brazen curiosity that village people reserve for strangers . . .” One sentence goes on for a page and a third. This is a stunt, maybe, but it’s very effective, reflecting as it does the tumbling heat of the writer’s thought.

Throughout the book, you get nuggets such as this:

As usual when I’m asked to appear on television I remembered for an instant what a friend of Umberto Eco’s told him on one occasion (“Umberto, every time I don’t see you on television you seem more intelligent”) . . .

People in my business can relate to that, smilingly.

And may I say that, in reading about riven Spain, I thought about riven America? I mean, America at present? We are not to the point of civil war — we had one of those, a while back — but I nonetheless felt a tremor or two.

“War is hell,” and this is so obvious, it can be offensive to hear. It’s a cliché that we perhaps don’t need. But Cercas manages to find new ways to make the point, or illustrate it. War is more Goya than Velázquez, he says: the least pretty thing ever. In the summer of 1937, Manuel Mena was a cadet at the Granada Military Academy. There was a saying: “The first month’s salary is for the uniform; the second month’s, for the shroud.” Manuel, like thousands of others, became a provisional second lieutenant. There was a name for such officers: “corpses-in-waiting.”

The rotten truth, says Cercas, is that Manuel Mena died for nothing. But he does not disparage his great-uncle, the family hero. Far from it. He knows that good and golden people can die in bad causes. (Was Achilles’ cause so hot?) Also, he is no longer ashamed of his family’s past. On the contrary, he is ashamed of his prior shame.

This book is what critics call “searingly honest.” (See how I have cheated, by pinning the cliché on others, while using it?)

When he was at last able to tell Manuel Mena’s story — and, by extension, his own — Javier Cercas felt a sense of euphoria. So did I, on merely reading the book. I can only imagine what it was like to write it. A major achievement, in historical, literary, and moral terms.


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