In this short, dense, dazzling novel, Javier Cercas weaves "a true tale" with the larger truth that fiction can provide. "Soldiers of Salamis" layers and connects the poet and...

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In this short, dense, dazzling novel, Javier Cercas weaves “a true tale” with the larger truth that fiction can provide.

“Soldiers of Salamis” layers and connects the poet and the soldier, the peasant and the politician, the past and the present. The insistent beat of a sad Spanish dance lingers just underneath; the story revolves around an incident at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Twenty-five prisoners line up one January morning before a military firing squad in an empty field. A volley. An escape.

The Spanish Civil War was once a romantic call to arms to idealists in the fight against fascist troops led by Francisco Franco. Later, the whole experience was overshadowed by World War II and the fight against other fascists.

In January 1939, as Franco’s Falangist armies rolled to victory, the retreating Republican army executed their most important political prisoners. In the smoke and confusion, one of these, Rafael Sánchez Mazas — the writer, poet and founding member of the Falange — managed to escape. Sánchez Mazas bolted into the nearby woods, cowering, listening to the shots and the dogs sniffing him out. A Republican soldier discovered him but did not shoot. In fact, he walked away. Sánchez Mazas went on to power and celebrity in Franco’s Spain. And the soldier?

“Soldiers of Salamis”

by Javier Cercas,

translated by Anne McLean

Bloomsbury, $23.95

Thereby hangs this tale. Slowly the narrator (also named Javier Cercas and, like him, the author of two novels) peels back the layers of the past, seeking the elusive truth — sometimes giving up, sometimes being spurred forward. “Soldiers of Salamis” is framed by the story of two searches. One is a ramshackle search for the soldier who spared Sánchez Mazas’ life. One is a historical search, piecing together elements of legend, fragile documents, the testimony of old people and the untold stories of the dead.

This is a fine, compelling novel that toys with postmodern notions of the true tale vs. the novel and the author vs. the narrator. But “Soldiers of Salamis” invites and sustains the reader without posturing. The prose is seductive and the narrative voice intimate, sometimes bitter but never dull. Readers shackled to neatly picketed options — right and wrong, good and bad, left and right — will be confounded, but anyone else will be rewarded. And Cercas’ conclusion, heartbreaking and yet optimistic, will stay with you for a long while.

The book is elegantly presented, but American readers could have benefited from end-paper maps, of Spain in particular and Europe in general. The swath of geography Cercas invokes is equaled only by the swath of time. The translator’s brief preface gives sufficient context for any reader unacquainted with the Spanish Civil War.

That conflict may be long remote, but this novel will convince you it is not irrelevant.