By Year 13 Hispanist Oliver Beeby
Soldados de Salamina is, more than anything else, a scathing and unflinching critique of the Spanish ‘pacto del olvido’ – i.e. the pact among post-Franco politicians of all shades not to use the past for political reasons at a time when the transition to democracy was beginning.
The novel was published just before the turn of the millennium, against a backdrop of increasing awareness of the problems with the policy of forgetting. Work had begun on exhuming the remains of Republican soldiers, and La Ley de Memoria Histórica, which officially recognised victims of the War and Franco’s repression, was in gestation (it reached the statute books in 2007).
Cercas’ novel plays into this discourse, and in some ways has even shaped it.
At the start of the novel we are introduced to a narrator, who is essentially a stand-in for Cercas himself. This version of Cercas is unfamiliar with the Civil War, going so far as to dismiss it as a setting for unimaginative authors (carburante para la imaginación de los novelistas sin imaginación). This unfamiliarity also extends to the title of the novel: upon hearing about the story of the shooting at Collel, he remarks that it felt as distant as the Battle of Salamis in Greek antiquity (“tan remoto como la batalla de Salamina”).
The Cercas of these first few pages represents the general Spanish population. Having grown up under the pacto del olvido, he – his generation and those younger – has a skewed image of the Civil War and the dictatorship that followed. From the very first pages, memory is a key theme.
The first of the novel’s three sections – Los amigos del bosque – is a largely journalistic, often witty, narrative of the narrator’s research into the firing squad from which Sánchez Mazas escaped. Not only is this an entertaining format that gives us intriguing insight into the art of research, but it also serves to further Cercas’ central point about memory and remembrance. The narrator comes across many people who were directly related to, or even involved, in the events he is researching. For example, on hearing that Jaume Figueras – son of Pere Figueras, who was one of the amigos del bosque – is alive, the narrator expresses surprise and amazement, illustrating how the ‘forgetting’ of the ‘70s and ‘80s has set distance between modern-day Spain and the Civil War. Further, the narrator encounters numerous sources, each with different versions of events, showing us that the ‘forgetting’ is truly working. Without any official accounts or memoirs (thanks to the pacto) the narrator’s investigation relies on the diminishing and fallible human memory.
The second section is narratively very different, but emphasises many of the same points. This section – entitled Soldados de Salamina – is a mostly factual narration of the life of Sánchez Mazas, written in the third person, unlike the first and last parts of the book. However, Cercas still repeatedly reminds us of the way the Spanish are losing their grip on history (“no ofrezco hechos probados, sino conjeturas razonables,” he writes). He also occasionally slips into a more descriptive, novelistic voice (for instance the anaphora of “piensa…” leading up to the shooting itself) which serves to highlight the importance of history as a series of human stories, rather than dates and generals. After all, most Spanish schoolchildren could tell you that the Civil War started in 1936 and ended in 1939, but few understand and empathise with those involved in it.
Indeed, anthropologist Aleida Assmann splits ‘memory’ into two different types: operational memory and collective memory. Operational memory refers to the literal memories of individuals living in a country, while collective memory – or remembrance – refers to the ‘official’ record of events in books, legal code, or archives. Throughout his novel Cercas stresses the importance of both of these. First, he clearly advocates for greater collective memory by highlighting the scarcity of resources and archives, and by critiquing the general apathy of the Spanish. By highlighting individual stories and adding (invented) human emotions to the protagonists of his historical account, he also emphasises the importance and preservation of operational – or individual – memory.
The first two parts indicate Cercas’ intent in writing this novel. One might counter his points by arguing that Sánchez Mazas is exactly the type of historical figure who deserves to be forgotten: his ideology was odious and he had a fairly unremarkable life. Cercas vehemently rejects this argument, labelling those who would erase fascists from history and refuse to publish their works as “algunos ingenuos, guardianes de la ortodoxia de la izquierda, y también unos necios.” Cercas tackles these doubts by adding a fictional character in the third section of the novel: Miralles.
Miralles is an almost-too-perfect former Republican soldier. Not only did he resist the Francoist take-over until the very end, but he joined the French foreign legion and fought fascism all across the world. In all regards, he is a hero who dedicated his life (and almost died) to save the freedom of others. Despite this, Miralles comments that no one ever even thanked him for his service, and we see that he lives out his final days in an old people’s home in the unglamourous Dijon – which Miralles even jokingly refers to as Stockton, a perjorative reference to a film he has seen. (“Cree que alguien me lo ha agradecido? Le respondo yo: nadie. Nunca nadie me ha dado las gracias por dejarme la juventud peleando por su mierda de país.”) Cercas appeals to our emotions and sense of justice here: who can deny the dreadful effect of the pacto del olvido on Miralles?
Indeed, in this part of the novel Cercas explicitly mentions memory. He notes that, once Miralles dies, so too will those who fought alongside him, and no one will be left to remember them and what they died for (“cuando Miralles muera, sus amigos también morirán del todo, porque no habrá nadie que se acuerde de ellos.”) This idea of a second death shows how (especially under the pacto del olvido) stories, events and people can simply be lost to time, with no one left interested in their lives and experiences. By describing this loss as ‘death’ Cercas is using emotive language to convince us that this should be unacceptable in a civilised society.
To conclude, memory and remembrance are critically important in this novel; indeed, they are the entire purpose of the novel. Soldados de Salamina dramatises the pernicious effects of the‘pacto del olvido’ and the critical importance of memory, both in the preservation of individual stories and the need for remembrance. Through the stories of two very different men, Cercas proves that history is not just dates in a textbook: it deserves to be a living and breathing part of culture, surviving through each person’s memories and a civilisation’s cultural output.
See also BAS editor Fran Compán’s article on Soldados de Salamina on p18-19 of our June 2018 edition, accessible via the Past Editions tab above.