from Conversations about Soldiers of Salamis

The following is an extract from Diálogos de Salamina: un paseo por el cine y la literatura (Tusquets, 2003), a book of conversations between Javier Cercas, author of Soldiers of Salamis, and David Trueba, director and screenwriter of the film of the same name. The novel's narrator is also called Javier Cercas. Here the two writers are discussing the Spanish Civil War and its enduring influence on individuals, society and their own work.

Javier Cercas: . . . There's a story my mother has told me hundreds of times that's always fascinated me. The beginnings of my interest in the war may well stem from this. It's the story of the family hero, her handsome sixteen-year-old uncle, who was reading Ortega y Gasset at that age and who, when the war broke out, set out for the front to fight. Of course his father, my mother's grandfather, stopped him. But he tried again and again, until finally he managed it. My mother remembers him dressed in the impeccable uniform of the Infi Riflemen,1 with his Moroccan aide, strolling around town, all the girls crazy about him. My mother was about four or five then. For her, and for her whole family, that boy was a hero, because he'd gone off to fight in defense of the family, the fatherland and the Church. He was killed during the battle of the Ebro:2 he died bravely, perhaps the only decent way to die. My mother has recounted many times the moment when the coffin arrived at the house, accompanied by the Moroccan aide, and how the mother of the dead man, my great-grandmother, received it with her arm raised and shouted: "Arise Spain, my son!" A slogan, incidentally, coined by Rafael Sánchez Mazas.3 My mother has also told me that one morning, a few years later, she got out of bed when it was still dark, went out into the yard, and found her aunts burning the boy's letters. I always wanted to start a novel about the war with that image of a teenage girl watching her aunts burn the hero's letters, and getting very angry, failing to understand that for her aunts it was so painful they'd rather forget all about it. Obviously I'm never going to write it but don't try to tell me it's not a good story.

David Trueba: It sounds like a legend, and must have seemed even more so when you used to hear it as a child.

JC: Exactly. And the Civil War is an inexhaustible source of stories like that.

DT: I think everyone in Spain has some interest in the Civil War. It's another thing entirely to want to read books or see movies about it. But the Civil War is still very present. There's not a single family in Spain that doesn't have a Civil War story. Our parents or grandparents are the way they are because of what they lived through during the war or the postwar period. They either live in a certain city or have a particular job because of some circumstance related to it. The Civil War forms an intrinsic part of present-day Spain and it's absurd to pretend it doesn't. That said, it strikes me as important to emphasize something: Soldiers of Salamis is not about the Civil War. The Civil War as such, as a historical incident, is simply not material for a novel or a movie. Stories are made by good characters, not by good intentions, renowned biographies or historical events. Characters. And that's where the writer comes in, in the creation of those characters and their adventures. And if the fictional adventures-whether on page or screen-of those characters give rise to a declaration about the war or any grand theme, that's because the metaphor works, that it's well chosen. So, for me, the main event of Soldiers of Salamis is the writing of the novel by the character called Cercas.

JC: The protagonist of the novel undergoes a very clear evolution. It's a process that leads him to change his view on many, many things, including his view of the war. At the beginning Cercas thinks, like the majority of people of our generation, that the Civil War is a thing of the past, something as remote and distant as, say, the battle of Salamis, something that no longer affects us. And that's why he's so surprised to find out that some of the protagonists of Sánchez Mazas's adventures are still alive: Daniel Angelats, Joaquín Figueras, and Maria Ferré, three of the "forest friends."4 But at the end of the novel he comes to discover that the Civil War is the present, the beginning of the present, something that affects him directly and is alive, something-whether we want to admit it or not-that has influenced the life of almost everyone in this country, including his own.

* * *

DT: We're talking about a country that is confronting its phantoms, its fears and what's been forgotten for the first time. And it's about time too, time to face the consequences. For the first time people are demanding that mass graves full of anonymous corpses be disinterred. I think there's a debt to a lot of people who lost their lives in the Civil War or lost their best years to it. A debt that will never be repaid. The Transition5 meant a final curtain on that recuperation. It was a pact and, like all pacts, it was unjust and there were victims of that pact. But, at the same time, it was an enabling pact, a way to keep living together without throwing bricks at each others' heads.

JC: I'd like to clarify this because I think it's important. It's perhaps a subliminal theme of the novel, but a key one. At the beginning of the novel the narrator receives a letter from an old Republican, who says: "Damn the Transition!" And this surprises Cercas quite a bit. But, at the end, after his whole moral and historical journey, Cercas ends up saying: "Damn the Transition!" I think I, in this case, would be less radical than the narrator. And I'll explain. The Transition was, effectively, a sort of pact of forgetting, but it wasn't a Machiavellian pact. The politicians didn't sit down and agree: "We're going to obliterate this. No talking about the past allowed, no talking about the war. There were no victors and no vanquished." No, it was more subtle than that. It was an implicit pact, to which, don't forget, we all signed up. Especially the young people; we said to ourselves: "Let's forget all that, it was filthy and repugnant; let's look to the future. We're post-modern, we're the Spain of Almodóvar, we're cool. We're not the nation of goatherds we used to be." The price of this isn't exactly oblivion; it's elusive: it's that fog of mistakes, misunderstandings, half-truths and simple lies that floats over the Civil War and the immediate postwar period. We have to be aware of that price and try to pay it off with the least possible cost. And I'm not blaming the politicians for this: maybe there was no better way to do it, I don't know. Of course, in his day, I used to curse Suárez.6 But now I have an enormous respect for him. I think the juggling act he managed to pull off at the time was a miracle. It was so difficult, almost impossible, and the result is that now, whichever way we look at it, comparing Spain to the countries around us, this is a prosperous country where people live very well. Anyone who's traveled even a little bit can see that. Anyway, what's remained is that fog, that oblivion that affects everyone like Miralles. Until just a few months ago the government of Spain had never condemned the military coup. Imagine. And this affects people like Miralles.7 These guys defended the legitimate Republican government and, like the Maquis,8 are still considered delinquents here, when in France they're great heroes of liberty. This is indisputable, a historical fact that also affects the others, the victors, the people like Sánchez Mazas, who don't get the attention they deserve. How is it possible that no one's written a biography of someone like Sánchez Mazas? How can he barely appear in history books? How can he not even be notorious when he was the ideologue of the party that dominated Spain for forty years? But these things are not easy to say, and I think it's about time they were said. Not with malice or judgment. Just the truth. The Transition wiped the slate clean and didn't judge those who should have been judged. If it had, people like Manuel Fraga9 wouldn't be in power. I'm not saying it should have been done: I'm saying it wasn't. So then, of course, there's a historical debt. Over the last little while, this has been changing. Other things are surfacing. And it's not that this is good: it's indispensable. The film will contribute to that, it's going to come out at the best possible time. And, as for my book, I hope it's contributed with its grain of sand to this facing up to the truth, because my aspiration was to lie anecdotally, in the particulars, in order to tell an essential truth.

Notes 1 Infi: Spanish area later ceded to Morocco.

2 River in northern Spain. The Battle of Ebro, which took place near Tortosa, was an attempt to reverse Franco's advance on Valenica; it lasted from July to December 1938 and was a decisive defeat for the Republicans. 3Major character in Cercas's novel; writer and senior Spanish Fascist Party member who escaped during the war from a firing squad and afterward became a senior member of Franco's government. In Cercas's novel, he is discovered hiding in the forest by a Republican soldier who spares his life.

4Reference to the Republican deserters and locals who helped keep Sánchez Mazas alive after his escape into the forest.

5Spain's transition to democracy in the post-Franco era.

6Adolfo Suarez, Spain's first democratically elected prime minister after the country emerged from dictatorship in late 1975.

7Major character in Cercas's novel; Republican soldier who discovered Sánchez Mazas hiding and spared his life.

8French Resistance group.

9President of the Spanish province Galicia. Fraga was for years a top official in the Franco dictatorship; as Minister of Information and Tourism, he presided over a repressive press law.