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Javier Cercas: El monarca de las sombras (Lord of All Dead)

As is usual with Cercas, this is a non-fiction novel, i.e. a work of non-fiction, written as a novel and with a certain amount of speculation included in it. Though not his first novel, he made his name with Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis), a Spanish Civil War novel and here he is back with another civil war novel. The title comes from The Odyssey, when Achilles says he would rather be a slave on earth than Lord of all the Dead.

Cercas’ family is from Ibahernando, a village in Extremadura, where Cercas himself was born. Ibahernando was for a long time a very poor village, its lands mainly owned by the rich and absent. This changed as some locals managed to acquire some lands and they were considered the patricians of the village, though they were not rich by any means. Cercas’ family was one of these. In the 1950s, many people moved out, heading to the cities to find work. The Cercas family still has a house there though they only visit in the summer. In the house there is a photo.

The photo is of Manuel Mena, Cercas’ great-uncle. He was killed, aged nineteen, at the Battle of the Ebro, in September 1938, towards the end of the Spanish Civil War. However, he was fighting for the wrong side, for Franco. At the time, it was not the wrong side but later it became the wrong side. Cercas had always been somewhat ashamed of this, ashamed but not guilty, even though most of his family were pro-Franco.

His mother had grown up in Ibahernando but like many others, she moved with her husband and children (including Cercas) to the big city, the big city being Gerona, where they even spoke a foreign language, Catalan. For her, this emigration was the major event of her life. While watching a film with Cercas, she comments that What happened in that film is what always happens: someone dies and the next day nobody remembers him. That’s what happened to my uncle Manolo. He realises that his death was important to her, not only because they were fairly close but because he died a noble death, killed in battle, fighting for what he believed in. Having resisted writing about him, just because he was on the wrong side, Cercas now changes his mind.

There is not much left. Most of the people who knew him are long since dead. His family destroyed his effects. No-one checked out his death at the time. He does discover a couple of people who may have known him. He decides to go to Ibahernando to interview his man whose father was brutally murdered at the time for being anti-Franco. He decides to take David Trueba, the man who filmed his Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis) and now his good friend.

Trueba warns him against writing the book. Whatever you write, some will attack you for idealising the Republicans, for not denouncing their crimes, and others will accuse you of revisionism or of massaging Francoism to present Francoists as normal, everyday people and not as monsters. That’s how it is: nobody is interested in the truth; haven’t you realised that? Nevertheless they head for Ibahernando and discuss the project en route.

They go to Ibahernando to interview a man known as The Shearer, because he sheared the local animals. We know that his father was brutally murdered, dragged from his house, taken away and shot. He was not the only one. Indeed, it is estimated that eleven people were murdered in this way in the village during the war. Cercas and Trueba interview The Shearer but it is not easy. He is reluctant to talk about Manuel Mena but they do get some information from him. What becomes clear is that, eighty years later, he is still very much traumatised by the events of the war, the killing of his father, obviously, but also the other violence. Indeed, his daughter Carmen who is with him says he has never discussed the killing of his father before.

Trueba sums it up afterwards. People have almost always thought wars were useful, that they solved problems. That’s what men have thought for centuries, for millennia: that war is terrible and cruel but noble, the place where we get an authentic measure of ourselves. Now this seems fucking stupid to us, moronic ravings.

The rest of the book tells us of Cercas’s investigations into what happened to Manuel Mena and also the story of Mena and his short life. Firstly, some of the things that Cercas discovers show that the generally accepted story is both missing various events but also is, in some cases, wrong. Cercas finds people who know things, both contemporaries of Mena and those who came later, but also finds documents and visits key sites.

We learn that Mena was involved in what were probably the key battles of the war – the Battle of Teruel where he was wounded and initially believed to have been killed and the Battle of the Ebro where was badly wounded and died before receiving treatment.

While telling a fascinating story, both an interesting account of a young man’s life and death in a war, as well as his own detective work, Cercas raises and discusses a host of issues. Honour and the nature of war are clearly key themes. However, one issue seems to be important and not obvious – that of fitting in. Cercas himself, born in Extremadura and transplanted as a boy to Catalonia always felt that he did not fit in with either. His mother, of course, felt that she did not fit into Catalonia and still does not. But it seems that Mena also felt he did not fit in. He had been elsewhere to study and, when returning to the village, felt different. How much did that influence his decision to fight, against his widowed mother’s wishes?

When investigating the story, Cercas comes to the conclusion that Mena’s life and motives, as well as the motives of others, including his own family, were also more complex that they might have seemed at first glance.

Why did the people of the village back the wrong side? It was in their own interests, both for the poor landless peasants and those, like the members of Cercas’ own family, who owned some land, to stick together and fight the common enemy, namely the very rich, the aristocrats and the Catholic Church. Some of them, indeed, seemed to change their minds later.

This issue was not limited to the Spanish Civil War. We have seen it later. I am writing this in November 2020, shortly after the US presidential elections where Trump may have lost but he garnered the second highest total ever in a US presidential election. Why did 70 million vote for him when, for many, it was not in their own interest to do so? This has been discussed in great detail by far more qualified people than me and, it seems, the answer is complicated, i.e. there is not one simple, single explanation.

As regards the Spanish Civil War, Cercas surmises that the straightforward reason was the violence that the Republicans seemed to encourage and tolerate. The land owners in the village found that their workers were striking for more pay and then, when they were fired, sabotaging. In other words, Franco and the Falange would restore the law and order they favoured. If they win, they’ll kill us; if we win, we’ll have to kill them. That is the impossible situation into which the responsible people of this country led these poor people. While this is undoubtedly true, as with Trump, the answer is probably more complicated.

Cercas still takes the view that Mena and his family backed the wrong side. That’s the saddest thing about Manuel Mena’s fate. That, as well as dying for an unjust cause, he died fighting for interests that weren’t even his. Not his and not his family’s. I thought: That he died for nothing.

Honour was clearly a factor but was it worth it? It was a thousand times better to be Odysseus than to be Achilles, to live a long and mediocre and happy life of fidelity to Penelope, to Ithaca and to oneself, even if at the end of that life another does not await, than to live a brief and heroic life and a glorious death.

Cercas tells a superb story which leads to a range of interesting ideas which have relevance well beyond the Spanish Civil War. However, as he concludes, History is written by the victors. Legends are woven by the people. Writers fantasise. Only death is certain.

Publishing history

First published in 2017 by Random House
First English translation in 2019 by Maclehose
Translated by Anne McLean