Soldiers Of Salamis Analysis Essay

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Soldiers of Salamis

Javier Cercas

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  • Spanish title: Soldados de Salamina
  • Translated by Anne McLean
  • Awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction prize, 2004
  • Soldados de Salamina was made into a film in 2003, directed by David Trueba

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Our Assessment:

B+ : decent story, but the presentation gets out of hand

See our review for fuller assessment.

The Age.25/10/2003Kerryn Goldsworthy
Daily Telegraph.4/5/2003Miranda France
FAZ.9/8/2002Paul Ingendaay
The Guardian.21/6/2003Nick Caistor
The IndependentA+14/6/2003Boyd Tonkin
The LA Times.29/2/2004Rebecca Pawel
The Observer.13/7/2003Amanda Hopkinson
Sunday TelegraphA4/5/2003Anne Chisholm
The Times.28/8/2004Chris Power
TLS.14/12/2001Xon De Ros
TLS.22/8/2003Tim Souster
Die Welt.8/3/2003Albrecht Buschmann
World Literature Today.Spring/2001Rosa Julia Bird
Die ZeitA+2/10/2002Christian Schüle

  Review Consensus:

  Generally very favourable

  From the Reviews:
  • "Soldiers of Salamis isn't a great novel but it is worth reading for three things: the story of Miralles, the affirmation of the values that make him a hero and the opportunity to find out more than you probably ever knew before about the Spanish Civil War." - Kerryn Goldsworthy, The Age

  • "Soldiers of Salamis is a great read and a moving epitaph. But Cercas's quest to get at the "truth" of what happened in Collell suffers, I think, because we never know when he is telling the truth himself." - Miranda France, Daily Telegraph

  • "Das Pathos wird in kleinen Dosen verabreicht, Schweres und Leichtes sind locker gemischt. Daß Javier Cercas bei alledem nicht mit Kalendersprüchen zum Handwerk des Schreibens spart, mag auf die Leser sympathisch wirken: Hier predigt nicht jemand vom Olymp auf sie herab, sondern übt noch, so wie andere das Schreinern oder den Bauchtanz üben." - Paul Ingendaay, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The narrator is fascinated by the way memory congeals into history: the insidious process by which personal narratives become part of a past that can no longer be verified, and is therefore taken to be the truth, even though it is only one possible version of what actually happened. (.....) (F)rom the very outset of Soldiers of Salamis it is plain that this is a literary quest, the hope being that the fictional invention will be more convincing in the end than any biographical memoir." - Nick Caistor, The Guardian

  • "(I)t takes us down the road that leads a Spanish writer from cynical indifference through antiquarian fascination to wholehearted empathy -- a progress that gives this book its singular, and satisfying shape. More than 60 years on, Cercas has written a classic novel -- though a consistently droll and high-spirited one -- about the filtration of war's tragedies through memory and myth." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "It is difficult to give Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas the serious attention it deserves without making the novel sound ponderous and unappealing. This is a shame. The book is funny and gripping and also a tear-jerker in the best sense of the word." - Rebecca Pawel, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Soldiers of Salamis is compelling because there are no heroes. Or perhaps because each man proves himself capable, if not of heroics, at the very least of behaving honourably." - Amanda Hopkinson, The Observer

  • "It is rare for novels in translation to achieve a wide readership here. This one really should, not only because it is such a remarkable book, but also because oversimplified ideas about the rights and wrongs of the Spanish Civil War still have a powerful effect on European cultural and political thinking." - Anne Chisholm, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Cercas�s sly manoeuvrings between fact and fiction are not the postmodernist�s unmasking of universal meaninglessness; they represent instead a hugely involving affirmation of literature as path to truth." - Chris Power, The Times

  • "His quest for their lost names and identities, told with all the tension of a detective story, brings about the recovery, in an epiphanic finale, of his own literary voice. For all its historical references, real and fabricated, Javier Cercas's engrossing novel is, most fundamentally, a chronicle of its own writing. In some of its concerns as well as in its hybridity, this novel brings to mind the work of W. G. Sebald, with whom Cercas also shares a precise prose style and a skilful narrative arrangement." - Xon De Ros, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(T)hough full of intelligent questions and memorable details, Cercas looks truth in the eye, is swayed by sentiment and turns away. Javier Cercas is fond of the long dense sentences that are characteristic of Spanish prose, and by opting to translate them into equally long, dense English sentences Anne McLean occasionally writes herself into a cul-de-sac. But her translation catches the book's tone: light, colloquial and capable of moments of lyricism." - Tim Souster, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Lange hat mich ein Buch nicht so begeistert und so empört." - Albrecht Buschmann, Die Welt

  • "Soldados de Salamina is a compelling and provocative novel. The simplicity of the basic story, which by itself would have only been another article in a journal or newspaper, is turned into a profound analysis of the intricacies of writing and being a writer. Art as imitation of reality and literature as political and social compromise are but two of the issues explored." - Rosa Julia Bird, World Literature Today

  • "Kurz vor Schluss erst merkt der Leser, wie kunstvoll komponiert, wie komplex es ist. Welche Räume es aufreißt, welche Tiefen es öffnet. (...) Ein großes Buch." - Christian Schüle, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Soldiers of Salamis Javier Cercas tells the story of a writer named Javier Cercas' efforts in trying to write a book called Soldiers of Salamis. This book is labelled a fiction, but the narrator's name is the same as that of the author and the events he wants to write about are historical.
       The episode that captures the imagination of the (semi- ?) fictional Javier Cercas occurred at the end of the Spanish Civil War, when Rafael Sánchez Mazas, a leading Falangist (and also a writer), was one of some fifty Nationalist prisoners who the Republicans machine-gunned in a mass execution. Sánchez Mazas was one of two to escape, but the Republicans immediately tried to hunt them down. Hiding close to the the site of the execution, Sánchez Mazas was discovered by a Republican soldier -- but not turned in, allowing him to truly escape (and eventually go on to briefly become a Minister Without Portfolio in the Franco government).
       Soldiers of Salamis is told in three parts. In the first, the fictional Cercas describes his growing fascination with the story. Working as a journalist, he wrote an article about the episode, and the reactions to it lead to new discoveries and suggested new possibilities of how to look at it -- and how to write about it.
       The second part is the work that eventually results, titled "Soldiers of Salamis" and describing the events that led up to the episode in 1939, what happened, and a brief conclusion about Sánchez Mazas' life afterwards (when he used what power he had to help some of those who had helped him).
       Once it's completed, Cercas find: "the book wasn't bad, but insufficient". What's missing is the key to the whole episode: the militiaman who saw Sánchez Mazas but didn't turn him in. As luck would have it, he interviews an author who tells him about a forgotten Spanish hero -- a man who, so Cercas eventually comes to believe, was at the site of the mass-execution. And so Cercas tries to hunt him down too.

       Soldiers of Salamis is a meditation on heroism, and on writing. And it is about the remembering, recording, and understanding of history, especially the many forgotten and anonymous individuals who played significant roles in the vast unknowable past.
       It's an odd book: the episode in the forest is repeated many times, a moment -- as these two men look each other in the eyes -- that Cercas sees as far more profound than just one man sparing another's life. Meanwhile, the author imposes himself on the reader far more than in most fictions, making himself a character -- and not a particularly sympathetic one either -- and making it a book about his quest as much as about the actual events he's ostensibly trying to understand and recreate.
       Cercas' descriptions of his difficulties in writing the book he wants to write (and of his somewhat sorry life in general) can get tedious, and the play on fact versus fiction (often put as little more than a question of semantics) is often forced too. Some of the explanations are amusing, but Cercas pushes the game too far. The initial exchanges are clever enough, as one with his unlikely girlfriend, Conchi:

    'I hope it's not a novel.'
    'No,' I said, very confidently. 'It's a true tale.'
    'What's that. ?'
    I explained; I think she understood.
    'It'll be like a novel,' I summed up. 'Except, instead of being all lies, it's all true.'
    'I'm glad it's not going to be a novel.'
    'Why's that ?'
    'No reason,' she answered. 'It's just that -- well, honey, I don't think imagination is really your strong suit.'
       But by the end of this 'true tale' within a true tale, when yet another character opines: "Sounds like a fiction, that story", the joke has worn very thin and whatever impact the notion might have had has been blunted to the point where the reader is left indifferent to the question of the veracity of almost any part of the novel. (Possibly this was Cercas' intention all along: to trivialize history by showing it's no better or different than fiction. )
       Aspects of the presentation aside, Cercas does tell a good story. Sánchez Mazas is an interesting figure:
In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to claim Sánchez Mazas as Spain's first fascist, and quite correct to say he was its most influential theoretician.
       Franco made "orthopaedic use" of the Falange (whatever that might mean), but eventually was fed up with Sánchez Mazas, making him a relatively marginalized figure with only limited influence. Also of interest: Sánchez Mazas was also a writer of some talent.
       Other characters, including the one hero Cercas hunts down, are also compelling figures. Some of the Spanish and wartime history is a bit dense for those unfamiliar with the names and locales, but Cercas keeps things moving in this relatively short book, and so one doesn't get too bogged down in this sort of detail.

       Soldiers of Salamis is a good book, but tries to be too clever, especially with an approach that Cercas never grows comfortable with.
       Conchi has Cercas pegged right:
'If I didn't know you were an intellectual, I'd say you were stupid.'
       Unfortunately that's exactly the sense one gets too often in the book.

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Soldiers of Salamis: Reviews: Soldados de Salamina - the movie: Other books by Javier Cercas under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Javier Cercas was born in 1962.

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© 2004-2016 the complete review

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Soldiers of Salamis
by Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean
224pp, Bloomsbury, £14.99

The Spanish civil war is staggering to its inevitable conclusion. After the fall of Barcelona, the remnants of the Republican army flee towards the French border. An order comes for them to execute their nationalist prisoners, among them Sanchez Mazas, one of the ideologues whose inflamed rhetoric brought catastrophe to Spain in the first place.

Some 50 of the prisoners are lined up. Mazas hears the shots but, realising he has only been wounded, escapes into the woods. He is discovered by a republican militiaman, who stares him in the face, and then spares his life, shouting to his companions that there is no one there. For several days, the Falange leader hides out in the forests, helped by some deserters from the Republican side, and then is rescued by Franco's troops. He is received as a hero, and feted throughout the newly nationalist country.

He is made a minister in the first Franco government, but quickly becomes disillusioned with the grubbiness of everyday politics, so far from his early high poetic ideals. He inherits money, and lives out his days as a frustrated writer, pursued by dreams of glory and heroism, so lacking in his own life.

Mazas's story is the central panel of Javier Cercas's tryptich. In the first part, we meet the narrator, also called "Javier Cercas", who disarmingly admits from the start that he is a failure as husband and writer. He hears of the story of Sanchez Mazas from the Falangist's son, and the fact that he has just lost his own father sets him on a journey to rescue the forgotten writer from oblivion, in the hope that he might also rescue his own career.

The narrator is fascinated by the way memory congeals into history: the insidious process by which personal narratives become part of a past that can no longer be verified, and is therefore taken to be the truth, even though it is only one possible version of what actually happened. As Cercas points out, the events of the Spanish civil war, which took place only a generation earlier, are becoming as distant and fixed as the story of the soldiers who fought the Persian fleet at Salamis more than 2,000 years earlier.

The narrator is at pains to stress that he is telling a "true story". But from the very outset of Soldiers of Salamis it is plain that this is a literary quest, the hope being that the fictional invention will be more convincing in the end than any biographical memoir. A vital part of the attempt to keep the past as living memory rather than dead history is to investigate individual motives, and the story of Mazas revolves around a central question: what exactly makes a hero? Is it someone like Mazas, who proclaims the glory of violence and the need for radical change, but never actually fights for it; or is heroism something different entirely?

Cercas's response comes in the third section of the novel. This is an account of how the narrator manages to track down the person who might have been the republican militiaman who spared Mazas's life. This man, Antoni Miralles, will not say straight out whether he was the man or not. But talking to him in an old people's home on the outskirts of Dijon, in France, the narrator becomes convinced he is the real hero, "someone who has courage and an instinct for virtue, and therefore never makes a mistake, or at least doesn't make a mistake the one time when it matters, and therefore can't not be a hero".

The book ends with the narrator triumphantly certain that, whether or not Miralles was the man in question, on the level of his own fiction he is the perfect fit to help "complete the mechanism" of his book, and in so doing rescue from oblivion all the "soldiers of Salamis" - the warriors who were heroes despite knowing they were fighting an already lost cause.

Cercas's book has created a sensation in Spain. Whereas in Britain it is easy enough to know who the heroes were - the ones who fought and defeated fascism - the situation in Spain is very different. Not only was the country split in two during the civil war, but there followed 40 years of rule by one side that sought to deny any virtues to its adversaries. As Cercas tells us, "there is a monument to the war dead in every town in Spain. How many have you seen with, at the very least, the names of the fallen from both sides?"

Yet at the same time, Franco and his supporters "won the war but lost the history of literature". Internationally, it is the republicans who are seen as heroes, whether the writer is Hemingway, Orwell or André Malraux. In the end, Soldiers of Salamis remains firmly in this tradition, while offering a gentle and often moving reassertion that individual lives and actions matter most, however overwhelming the historical circumstances may seem.

Nick Caistor is the translator of Juan MarsË's Lizard Tails.

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