The difficulty when writing about a civil war – in this case the Spanish Civil War – is expressed by the narrator’s friend in “Lord of all the dead”.
Whatever you write, someone 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 realized that?
Javier Cercas, author and narrator of “Lord of all the dead”, is seeking the truth, or at least something less than a falsification, about Manuel Mena.
This 19-year old uncle of his mother’s was killed in a civil war battle in September 1936, fighting for Franco.
Cercas goes to the village of Ibahernando in Extremadura, where Mena was born and raised, to interview a man in his nineties who is apparently the only person still alive who remembers Manuel Mena.
Then, dramatically, it emerges that the old man’s father, a barber, was murdered by right-wing insurgents in the village. In all, there were eleven murders in the region after the village fell under fascist control in 1936.
The author/narrator’s was also born in Ibahernando and his grandfather, Pico Cercas had also known Manuel Mena. Pico had been a Falangist but became disillusioned with politics in general.
He never spoke about Franco’s dictatorship, during or after the war but his family supported fascism and the author wants closure and catharsis for the ‘dishonour of my forebears’.
Paintings by Velasquez and Goya provide the narrator with an optic for his investigation into the past. In Velasquez’s The surrender of Breda, war is terrible but noble; in Goya’s The third of May 1808 or The disasters of War, the reality of war is in your face.
Manuel Mena left Extremadura to take up arms in a struggle he believed in. War for him was like Velasquez’s painting while Pico Cercas came to see that war was really more like Goya’s depiction of it.
The author’s quest becomes one of discovering whether his mother’s uncle died still believing in his idealistic notion of war. Or did he ‘travel in a handful of months from the exalted, utopian and lethal impetus of his youth to the clear-eyed disenchantment of a premature maturity’?
Another formulation of the question asks whether someone can be noble and honourable in the pursuit of a discredited cause like Franco’s.
The issue is not unrelated to a debate in France in 2017 when a prestigious publisher proposed to reissue a rabidly antisemitic work by the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
It is accepted that the writer is one of the greatest stylists writing in French but, equally deniably, he was an unrepentant racist and antisemite.
“Lord of all the dead” is a searching autofictional disquisition on the value of heroism while also documenting some key events in the conflict that still haunts Spain.
“Lord of all the dead” by Javier Cercas is published by Maclehose Press