Javier Cercas Profiled at the Guardian

The Guardian has a profile of Javier Cercas, his books, and fragments of an interview. It is worth a read as it will give you a window into his work, some of which has not been translated into English. The description of the Soldiers Salamis finally makes me want to read it (I was a bit on the fence after Anatomy of a Moment).

Cercas made his name with his fifth novel, Soldiers of Salamis (2001), which concerned an enigmatic encounter in 1939 between a Falangist writer, who had miraculously escaped a death squad in Catalonia, and a republican militiaman, who looks the fugitive in the eye but spares him. Weaving real and fictional characters, past and present, with allusions to the ancient battle of Salamis, it presaged resurgent interest in Spain in the civil war 60 years earlier, with moves to unearth anonymous graves and the founding of an Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory. It sold more than a million copies worldwide and won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize in 2004. Its 2003 film adaptation by David Trueba, screened at Cannes, won a Goya award. The Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa declared it “magnificent”, proof that engaged literature is not dead; for another critic, nothing less than the reconciliation of Spain begins at the moment when Cercas’s soldier refuses to kill. For the historian Antony Beevor, Cercas brings an “emotional intelligence that quite often historians who rely on documents are incapable of, and he never corrupts history. He’s not putting words into the mouths of historical characters.”

The unexpected success of Soldiers of Salamis (“only old people will be interested, my publishers said”) allowed Cercas to quit teaching Spanish literature at Catalonia’s Girona university. He has been a columnist for El País newspaper since 1997. Aged 48, he now lives in Barcelona with his wife Mercè Mas (an actor), and their 15-year-old son Raül. On the eve of the coup’s 30th anniversary, I found him riled by claims in El Mundo that he had been arrested in a Barcelona brothel during a police raid. It was a bizarre hoax for which the newspaper apologised a couple of days later, and a warped response, he says, to a column of his urging journalists to use their imaginations. “I’m not suing – it takes three years,” he shrugs. “You English have strong traditions of dissent, but we don’t know we can disagree without insulting each other. Intolerance is our national sin, because we have a tradition of dictatorship and inquisition; we kill people for thinking differently from us. Our national sport is not football but civil war.”

There is a bit on Anatomy’s position in Spanish society and some of the controversies. It really helps to know them when reading the book. I mentioned a few others in my review.

While The Anatomy of a Moment played a part in unearthing the past, it also controversially defended Spain’s tacit “pact of forgetting” – a path to reconciliation without trials or truth commissions that was settled in writing by the 1977 amnesty law. “If you want total justice – to judge all Francoists – you’re not going to get freedom; the army won’t accept it,” he says. “Sometimes total justice is total injustice – witch-hunting. Everyone was implicated in Francoism when my father was a kid.” The pact was made, he suggests, by those who remembered civil-war bloodletting, and what score-settling could actually mean. “It’s become a historical cliché that, in the change from dictatorship to democracy, Spain forgot. But it’s totally false. What happened was society, especially the political class, decided not to use the past as a political weapon, to construct something for all of us.”

2 thoughts on “Javier Cercas Profiled at the Guardian

  1. Paul, been meaning to tell you that I enjoyed your Anatomy of a Moment piece. Still want to read that work despite both your concerns and the anti-Cercas backlash in Spain (though the price for a copy at my local foreign language bookstore is a little too pricey for my tastes right now). And since I eventually found an economical copy of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s Los informantes online not too long ago, maybe the day the Cercas drops in price won’t be too far off…

  2. Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. I had the advantage that a Spanish friend of mine had a copy. Getting hold of Spanish language books can be a little pricy.

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