HEROISM HAS PREOCCUPIED philosophers and storytellers from the time of the earliest folk tales. From Plato to Shakespeare, Cervantes to Conrad, writers have long wrestled with the question of what makes a hero, and whether the term necessarily equates with acts of gallantry, martyrdom or extreme daring. How should we measure the self-sacrifice of ordinary Joes quietly doing good works or of nameless soldiers slain on the fields of long-forgotten battles against the overtly chivalrous acts of Robin Hoods or the impetuous bravery of spontaneous ‘heroes’ who risk injury or death by rescuing total strangers from armed assailants or blazing infernos?
These and related issues lie at the heart of Soldiers of Salamis, Javier Cercas’s novel about the scrappy, rancorous legacy of the Spanish Civil War. The subject of this ambitious, if slender, book is the mystery surrounding an inexplicable act of human charity that allowed one of Franco’s senior Nationalist lieutenants to survive a firing squad not once but twice in the space of a single hour.
Rafael Sanchez Mazas was a poet and a political theorist, one of the founding fathers of Falangism. In the dying days of the Civll War, he and forty-nine other prominent Nationalists were rounded up by Republican forces to be shot near an isolated monastery.
Taking advantage of a split second of confusion, he fled into nearby undergrowth, where he was swiftly tracked down and confronted by a Republican soldier. Rather than finishing the job off, however, the man turned on his heel, leaving his potential victim to scramble to safety, from where he was able to contact Franco’s forces and assume his place in the Generalissimo’s maiden administration. Sanchez Mazas went on to be hailed as a national hero, but history left no record of the identity or motives of the soldier who saved his life.
Casting himself as narrator, Cercas has written Soldiers of Salamis as a ‘true-to-life’ account of his attempts to piece together this curious episode while working as a local newspaper journalist in a provincial backwater in the 1990s. As a result, a story that could so easily have been relayed as a standard, if arresting, study in survivor guilt by a fictionalised Sanchez Mazas retains an elusive quality throughout, due to the partially inconclusive nature of Cercas’s investigations.
The central enigma of the book, naturally, is the altruism of the unknown soldier. Cercas’s efforts to comprehend his actions find expression largely in the middle section. which takes the more conventional form of a novella and chronicles the circumstances surrounding Sanchez Mazas’s miraculous escape and his subsequent shelter with a trio of fbgitive Republicans he later dubs hls ‘forest friends’. Cercas grapples to understand the soldier’s motives in an extraordinary passage which begins: ‘The soldier is looking at him; Sanchez Mazas is looking at the soldier, but his weak eyes don’t understand what they see: beneath the sodden hair and wide forehead and evebrows covered in rain drops the soldier’s look doesn’t express compassion or hatred, or even disdain, but a secret or unfathomable joy, something bordering on cruelty, and something that resists reason.’ From this point forward, the mysterious soldier and the more unambiguously compassionate ‘forest friends’ assume a near-mythic significance as symbols of the kind of unshowy, less celebrated ‘heroism’ to which many of us owe so much.
This metaphor gains a particular resonance in the third and final section of the book, in which an encounter with a Chillean author Cercas is sent’ to interview for is newspaper sets him off on a mission to track down the soldier in person. When the writer tells him of a former acquaintance who served in the battalion from which Sanchez Mazas’s firing squad was drawn, he becomes fixated on the possibility that he has stumbled upon his man by sheer serendipity.
A painstaking trawl through French telephone directories (this soldier, Miralles, retired to France after serving against the Nazis in the Second World War) eventually leads him to a retirement home near Dijon. Whether Miralles is indeed his imagined ‘hero’ remains nicely unclear, but the novel’s last few pages convey the sense that what matters is not the identity of one individual but the recognition that between the lines of history lie the untold stories of so many remarkable people.
Fittingly, it is the battle-scarred Miralles who comes nearest to capturing the essence of this complex book, in an angry rant on behalf of the legions of forgotten ‘heroes’ lying in unmarked graves: ‘Nobody remembers them, you know. Nobody even remembers why they died, why they didn’t have a wife and children and a sunny room; nobody remembers, least of all those they fought for. There’s no lousy street in any lousy town in any fucking country named afier them, nor will there ever be.’