The epic genre suffers from disregard. To the Iliad, our new century has preferred the Odyssey: the encumbered return of the warrior matters more to us than his laborious swordplay. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the continuous state of strife into which we have plunged the world for the past century (for the several past centuries), war is no longer seen as something glorious. Victory has become a term of reproach, at best ambiguous; defeat appears to be the least ignoble of the outcomes of battle.
I’m not an avid reader of epics. I can’t say, as Guy Gavriel Kay once told me, "Give me a story with swords, magic helmets, stolen horses and a castle set on fire, and I’m happy." There are no military histories on my bedside table. But a new Spanish novel that I’ve just finished reading has made me reconsider my notion of what an epic is. The author is Javier Cercas and the title of his book Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis), to be published by Bloomsbury early in 2003.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) vigorously illustrated these reversals of values. So ingrained is the lesson that Hitler and Mussolini were vanquished, that it is difficult to remember that in Spain, at least, fascism won; and that in 1975 the ally of those two unmentionables, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, died in a volley of official honours on his own comfortable bed, clutching the withered arm of St. Theresa, whose intercession he devoutly sought to spare him the common human lot. She refused.
Fascism won but Spain seems somehow to have overcome the shame of that outcome and, after the death of the dictator, redeemed the Republican values in what is a monarchy only in name. The poet Jaime Gil de Biedma (quoted by Cercas) noted that: "Of all the stories of History, that of Spain is the saddest because it ends so badly." Cercas questions this assertion and prefers to dwell on the ambiguity of the story itself, made explicit in the book’s title. According to Herodotus, in 480 BC a handful of Greek soldiers defeated the Persian army of Xerxes at Salamina: Cercas doesn’t tell us to what side the "soldiers" in his title belong.
Exemplary of the complex roles played by heroes and villains in the Spanish tragedy is the fate of the sibling poets Machado in Soldiers of Salamis, Manuel and Antonio, during their separate flights through their war-torn country, which Cercas retells in the first pages of the book. "The uprising of July 18th had surprised Manuel in Burgos, in the rebel zone; Antonio was in Madrid, in the Republican zone. One might reasonably suppose that if Manuel had found himself in Madrid he would have remained faithful to the Republic; perhaps it is pointless to ask what would have happened to Antonio if he had found himself in Burgos." To imply or suggest that allegiance to one side or another is circumstantial, that battling for the Republic or for Franco might be a question of railway timetables and not of faith and blood, and that what counts above all is the way any individual behaves in choices of life or death, seriously undermines our received notion of political fidelity. "And what is a hero?" asks Cercas at some point in the book. "I don’t know," answers his interlocutor. "Someone who believes himself to be a hero, and quite rightly. Or someone with courage and the instinct of virtue and who, for that very reason, never makes a mistake, or at least never makes a mistake at the one point in which it’s important not to make a mistake, and who therefore cannot make a mistake, and who therefore cannot avoid being a hero."
The story of the Machados is a microcosm of Cercas’s ambitious narrative. What he attempts to chronicle is another, more intimate and yet vaster story: that of the curious fate of Rafael Sánchez Mazas, cofounder of the fascist Falange party, gentleman and poet. Having miraculously escaped being shot by the defeated Republican troops as they retreat toward the French border, he is discovered by a Republican soldier as he attempts to hide in the bush. The soldier points his rifle at him, looks him in the eye and then calls back to his commander: "There’s no one here!" Sánchez Mazas lives on, a prestigious figure in the Spain of Franco. The name of his saviour remains unknown.
In Soldiers of Salamis, a story halfway between novel and documentary, Cercas sets out to uncover the details of this incident. He interviews survivors of the war who once knew Sánchez Mazas, he reads the extensive literature in search of a clue to the mystery, he carefully corrects the portrait of a man who lamented the passing of the old chivalrous age, a man who imagined that poetry could change the world, who bewilderingly saw in the likes of Mussolini something approaching the Greek ideal of the philosopher-statesman, and whose life was spared by the anonymous mercy of a soldier who was his enemy.
It may be that every great epic cares less for the outcome of the battle than for the secret incidental details of its chronicle, that it makes no distinction between the bleeding body of Patroclus and the bleeding body of Hector, that its interest lies in the heroic deeds per se and not in the excuses given for committing them. Cercas’s unknown soldier acted perhaps for no other reason than for the goodness of the act itself, beyond any considerations of cause, power, justice or revenge, merely out of the essential kernel of our common humanity. When Athena gleefully tells Ulysses, her protege, that Ajax, his foe, is cursed with endless misfortunes, Sophocles lends Ulysses heartbreaking words that suddenly render the Greek hero far more noble than the wise and bloodthirsty goddess: "The unfortunate man may be my enemy, and yet I pity him when I see him weighed down by misfortune. And it is more of myself than of him that I think, for I see that we, who live on this earth, are nothing but phantoms or soft shadows."
Until now, Spanish literature about the Civil War has largely concerned itself with clear-cut distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, resistance and collaboration, the bloodbath and the crushing dictatorship that followed it. Cercas seems less interested in these obvious proclamations than in the secret or forgotten details of individual gestures of both defeaters and defeated. By concentrating on these and relinquishing Hollywood pageantry, he has succeeded, with one perfectly crafted book, in redeeming single-handedly the epic genre.