Magazine May 4, 2020, Issue

Discovering Manuel Mena

Republican forces in the city of Irún during the Spanish Civil War (Biblioteca Nacional de Defensa/Wikimedia)
Lord of All the Dead: A Nonfiction Novel, by Javier Cercas, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean (Knopf, 288 pp., $26.95)

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 elsewhere as well.

One of the books was Soldiers of Salamis, a novel published in 2001. (Huge bestseller.) The second was the one I’m writing about, Lord of All the Dead, published in 2017. It is now available in an English translation by Anne McLean. Both books deal with the Spanish Civil War.

And there was my problem. I have nothing against the Spanish Civil War. But I had read and heard enough about it. (I have even written about it a little, in books and articles.) There are countless things to learn about, or acquaint oneself with, in this crowded world. And there is only so much time.

My thinking 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. For instance, praise gushed from the lips of Mario Vargas Llosa. There is a bona fide genius, MVL. 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 subtitle, a “nonfiction novel.” I don’t see that, frankly. I think 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 Franco-ist.” Cercas answered, a touch defensively, “More like a Falangist.”

Cercas did not want to write his Manuel Mena book. He was as reluctant to write it as I was to read it. For one thing, what would he tell his mother? How could he face her? What if he discovered things that were not very nice?

His mother wanted him to write the book — very much so. She didn’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.

Lord of All the Dead is, among other things, a feat of organization. It is a book about writing the book, as much as it is the book itself. The book goes back and forth, from past to present — always logically, even unnoticeably (which confirms the logic). Sometimes, Cercas refers to himself in the third person. As I say, it’s a strange book.

And marvelously written. One sentence goes on for a page and a third. A stunt, maybe, but very effective, reflecting the fervor of the writer’s thought.

The book begins with a short sentence — an epigraph, 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 the Manuel Mena of eternal and universal lore. In The Odyssey, 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. Yet people were known to switch sides, seamlessly. Did Spaniards care about ideology? Some did, sure — but listen to an old man, talking to Cercas: “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.”

That war is hell is such a cliché, it is almost offensive. And yet 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. Manuel Mena was a provisional second lieutenant, one of many thousands. They had a name for provisional second lieutenants: “corpses-in-waiting.”

The rotten truth, says Cercas, is that Manuel 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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