On a bleak dawn in January 1939, three months before the end of Spain's devastating Civil War, a group of fifty Nationalist prisoners are lined up in the clearing of a forest near Collell monastery in northern Catalonia. Among them is Rafael Sanchez Mazas, a leading fascist writer. Republican guards spray the prisoners with machine gun fire and most are killed instantly, but the bullets miss Mazas. Taking advantage of the ensuing chaos, he jumps into the thicket on the side of the clearing and escapes.
The famous writer crouches in the sodden undergrowth hoping the search party won't find him; but soon a Republican soldier is looking down at him. One of the soldier's comrades asks him if he's found anyone and, looking straight into Mazas' eyes, he shouts back “There's no one here.” Then he walks away.
This apparently true story is the basis for Soldiers of Salamis by the Extremadura-born writer and literature professor Javier Cercas. Superbly translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean in the year of its publication, the novel is told from Cercas' point of view and documents his quest to find out exactly what happened on that clearing near Collell in 1939.
As he searches, Cercas starts to believe that the key to the story which obsesses him lies not with the fascist writer but with the Republican soldier who spared his life. The result is a gripping and moving book that weaves reflections on the nature of story-telling, heroism and memory around a narrative with the pace of a whodunnit.
Mazas is a well-documented figure of the Civil War era and the story of his escape at Collell has become mythical. Accordingly, Cercas treats the anecdote not as a literal account of what happened, but as a tale that has attained completeness and perfection from being told and re-told.
The first time he hears it is in 1994, when he goes to interview Mazas' son, Rafael Sánchez Ferlioso, for a local newspaper.
On his second hearing of the Collell story - watching a video of Mazas himself relaying his escape to camera in February 1939 - Cercas realises that “what Sanchez Mazas had told his son (and what he'd told me) wasn't what he remembered happening, but what he remembered having told before”.
By encouraging us to regard the tale of Mazas' escape as quasi-mythical, Cercas alerts us to the challenges he faces in sifting truth from legend. Stories that depend on the “memory of a memory”, he reflects, are often “varnished with that gloss of half-truth and fibs that always augment an episode now distant and perhaps legendary to its protagonists”.
For this reason, Cercas spends the first section of the book searching for first-hand accounts; and his best bet is to find - assuming they're still alive . the group of “forest friends” who are said to have sheltered Mazas in the days following his escape from the firing squad.
As Cercas' quest continues, the layers of storytelling become ever more intriguing. The novel's exhilarating finale starts when he meets the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño (whose gargantuan “2666” is a modern classic of literary fiction), again to interview him for the newspaper. During their lengthy chat, Bolaño recalls working at a campsite near Barcelona in the late seventies. He remembers well a Spanish holidaymaker named Miralles, who used to turn up in his caravan every year and stay for the summer. Bolaño describes the friendship that developed between him and Miralles and the Civil War stories the latter used to tell him.
Cercas excitedly relays them to us, by which point we are receiving a third-hand account of Miralles' experiences. Yet the author compels you to share his conviction that this man - who, during boozy nights at the campsite, tells Bolaño of his time as a Republican soldier in Catalonia at the end of the war - holds the key to the story.
Indeed, at the beginning of the second section (which contains a fascinating biography of Mazas and a compact analysis of his writings) Cercas admits that, as it stands, his book is “hamstrung”. It lacks something, but he doesn't know what it is until he discovers Miralles. Could this man, who danced paso dobles with a prostitute outside his caravan at night 40 years later, be the soldier who spared Mazas' life in the rain-soaked forest near Collell in 1939? That becomes the central question of the second half of the book, the answer to which holds the “essential secret” that Cercas is seeking.
If storytelling is often rendered fragmentary by the imperfection of human memory, it is nevertheless a way to remember people and to keep them alive. It performs this function, certainly, for the obscure protagonist of this extraordinary book, about whom you are left wondering long after Cercas concludes his own story.