‘All wars are full of stories that sound like fiction.’ Soldiers of Salamis is the tale of an author searching for the truth in one of those stories, and questioning why we obsess about war stories in the first place.
The story in dispute is a real-life Nationalist general’s escape from a Republican firing squad during the closing days of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. As a prominent figure in Franco’s regime, Rafael Sanchez Mazas told the story of how he fled through the forest from his would-be executioners, and was allowed to escape by the soldier who caught him.
Yet in the often Chinese-whispers nature of story-telling, the truth of what happened that day in the forest is lost. The confusion ranges from minor differences in accounts – in one version , the soldier shrugs his shoulders and walks away; in another, he looks Mazas in the eyes before he leaves him – to the question of the identity and motivation of the mysterious Good Samaritan soldier.
In Soldiers of Salamis (yes, I kept calling it ‘Salami’ too), a fictionalized version of the author Cercas investigates Mazas’ tale. The book is in three sections – the first concerning how the author came to be interested in the story; the second being the author’s biography of Mazas’ life and his take on what happened in the forest; and the third recounting the author’s continued obsession with the story, including his belief that he has found the Good Samaritan soldier. It’s an interesting structure which represents the story telling process itself.
An emotional outburst by the (allegedly) Good Samaritan soldier, now a lonely old man in a nursing home (‘Can I ask you a favour…It’s been a long time since I hugged anyone’), helps Cercas to understand why we tell these war stories. Remembering the fallen comrades who fought with him against Franco, the soldier says:
Nobody even remembers why they died, why they didn’t have a wife and children… nobody remembers, least of all, those they fought for. There’s no lousy street in any lousy town in any fucking country named after any of them, nor will there ever be….Oh but I remember, I do remember, I remember them all…
And so, towards its end, we arrive at the very reason the author decides to write the novel in the first place:
…if I told his story, (he) would still be alive in some way and if I talked about them, his friends would still be alive too…that squad of soldiers that at the eleventh hour has always saved civilization…
80 years on from the start of the Spanish Civil War, this book is a crash course in the scarily rapid escalation and enduring wounds of civil war, the sacrifices of the fallen and the guilt of the survivors, and what it means to be a hero.