Javier Cercas’s last book, The Impostor (2017)...is one of the most accomplished books I’ve ever read. His new novel is even better. It opens with an agonised liberal facing up to an embarrassing family past, and ends as a wise and humane meditation on history ... [Cercas] gains (and gives us) a deeper, more nuanced understanding of that terrible conflict ... everything he writes is diligently factual. Yet it is through literary references that he gives us purchase on Mena’s story ... Perhaps because we have not had to face such a terrible national moral trauma, there is no one writing in English like this: engaged humanity achieving a hard-won wisdom. It is powerful stuff.
... [a] brave political and family history ... Cercas’ book consistently examines why someone might act against their own interests, and a superb companion piece to Cercas’ novel The Soldiers of Salamis ... in this elegant and penetrating narrative Cercas shows us how important it is that Mena’s life is not forgotten.
Cercas’s 'nonfiction novel,' first published in Spanish in 2017, presents an altogether more unsettling challenge for politically correct readers — as it must have done for the author himself ... his reconstructions are tied pretty closely to known historical fact, and there’s no question but that he invested a staggering amount of time and effort in digging up what little there was to be known ... Non-Spaniards will likely want to skip its more detailed accounts of the war. But Cercas keeps his readers curious to the end.
... finely translated ... Most of what Cercas learns about Mena could be summarized in a page or two, but since value—or, in this case, narrative payoff—is a function of scarcity, each new scrap of information acquires the momentousness of a major life event ... a powerful work of D.I.Y. history. It can also be frustratingly elliptical. One understands Cercas’s decision to renounce the fictional resources that served him so well in Soldiers of Salamis, but the experience of reading a book with so many narrative holes is a bit like visiting a museum where half the collection is out on loan ... The result of this self-restraint is a portrait in negative space; if Mena remains little more than an outline, at least the social world through which he moved is painted with vivid and arresting specificity ... will neither flatter liberal pieties nor assuage feelings of collective guilt. It may help Spaniards, and people farther afield, to better understand the lure of Fascism, a pressing task in today’s world.
The novel is narrated by a character called Javier Cercas, a figure so self-deprecating and likable that the reader is immediately on his side ... if it is written like a novel, with characters that come alive, vibrant conversations and memorable incidents, then it is a novel ... we should take this less-than-riveting overload of information in the spirit in which it is intended: as factual evidence of the chaotic material from which ‘history’ is painstakingly, but often incorrectly, written ... a fine and stimulating meditation on the nature of heroism, war, and self-sacrifice.
Mr. Cercas tells a story...of reportage through which the dead walk with all the vibrancy of the living ... As the book progresses, Mr. Cercas weaves together his themes so that the endless search for home and the seemingly endless aftereffects of the war become one and the same. He bridges with equal skill the gulf between the dead and the living. But why does he go to such great lengths to piece together his great-uncle’s final days? Was Mena better off among the dead, with the gallant portrait of him and the rumors of a hero’s death all that remained? This is the central question of the book. And it is also the central question for so many who have survived war to return home and, after struggling to reintegrate to normal life, are left wondering if it might have been better not to return at all.
... one of the strengths of Lord of All the Dead is the breadth of its subject matter. We learn enough about Mena to know the bare outline of his life and why he decided to fight for The Falange. But, more interestingly, we also discover the truth about why other Spaniards joined one side or another ... Cercas’ book consistently examines why someone might act against their own interests, and a superb companion piece to Cercas’ novel The Soldiers of Salamis, in which a Republican soldier saves the life of a Falangist leader ... in this elegant and penetrating narrative Cercas shows us how important it is that Mena’s life is not forgotten.
... even as he tracks his great-uncle to the north of Spain, Cercas never loses sight of their home town, a place whose hatreds and bloodletting become a microcosm of the madness engulfing the country ... The writing in Lord of All the Dead occasionally does justice to its Homeric muse, but all too often exasperates. Cercas has an undeniable knack for zoning in on a tiny ember of the past, which he then manages to coax to narrative flame. But his metafictional concerns can slip into navel-gazing, at odds with his historical themes. To build his story, Cercas twists two narrative strands together ... Intended to tease out the author’s ideas on the investigation, any insights are lost in long, self-indulgent exchanges and Hollywood tittle-tattle ... Behind this even-handedness lurk some questions. A mayor would have left a considerable paper trail. So, if Cercas is writing, as he declares, 'as a historian', might we not expect him to investigate that trail much more thoroughly? And how does the particular relate to the general? To what extent is Manuel a product of Spanish social conditions? Cercas details the near-medieval backwardness of Ibahernando, but does not fully explore how that shaped Manuel ... Cercas is surely right when he says, in interviews, that we can only understand the re-emergence of fascism if we empathise with how decent men like Manuel were sucked into it in the 1930s. But his ability to express such a noble aim is hobbled by the limitations of his auto-fictional methods, giving us history that is never quite proper history, and fiction that, in the end, isn’t really fiction either.
As in his earlier novel, Cercas is a slippery narrator, shifting in and out of the story, sometimes taking an overview with a documentary, almost forensic tone, at other times assuming the first person role of ‘Javier Cercas’ researching his family’s past — then pulling the rug from this conceit with post-modernist glee ... In search of the dead man, Cercas resurrects the past, drawing on records and personal testimony, at times guilty of information overload: details of battles won and lost weigh down some pages. But when it focuses on people, the book takes flight. It can be moving, unexpectedly funny, racy, demotic or deadpan. By the end there’s little that remains unknown about Mena, and there’s a sad irony to the achievement of heroic status: the family saw him as Achilles, the hero who gloriously died young. Cercas reminds us that when Odysseus, the wily survivor, visits the Underworld in the Odyssey, Achilles confesses he’d rather be a surviving penniless serf than lord of all the dead. So much for kalos thanatos.
Cercas began Lord of All the Dead with hopes to cull history from legend but found that establishing history’s granular facts is no easy task. Documents can be wrong, memories distorted; 'it was as difficult to trap the past as it was to trap water in your hands,' he writes. The novelist in him wanted to enter into Mena’s life, 'to smell exactly what he’d smelled and feel exactly what he’d felt.' ... Mena’s motivations for dying on what is seen nowadays (and by many of his contemporaries) as the wrong side of history? Cercas finds evidence that he was lured not by militarist-conservatism of Franco but the idealism of the Falange, the party whose communitarianism and calls to sacrifice were coopted by Franco. He finds evidence for the 'Mena of his last days,' a young man turned 'taciturn, absorbed, disenchanted, humble, lucid, aged and fed-up-with-war.' Cercas eventually loses his feeling of moral superiority as he draws a detailed panorama of lives defined by the limited perceptions and ideas of a particular time and place.
In the end, he’s told the story to tell the story. He doesn’t say his (moral) story possesses merit, such as contributing to knowledge. He can’t say that. Legends can’t do that. Or so he believes, or thinks he believes ... Literature, and art generally, makes the expected unexpected. It becomes possible to care. It doesn’t mean fiction and truth are the same. But they’re not separate either. Nineteenth century Cuban philosopher José Martí referred to art as a sword. The intimate connection between art and truth was obvious to those whose truths—and indeed their humanity—were denied in theory. Europeans pulled apart art and science. Cercas follows along, at least in theory. His legends, or some, are useful. But he can’t claim relevance to (moral) truth. His unadmitted third story disallows it. And so, we’re left with stories for stories: European liberalism’s secret legacy of despair.
Cercas’s candid wranglings with how to tell this tale, his own deep discomfort and the grave maturity with which he acknowledges he can’t feel morally superior to Mena make him a wonderfully warm and wise guide through this sad, small chapter of the Spanish Civil War ... It is also that of Spain, and its telling is another step on the difficult path to abandoning the 'pact of forgetting' and finally reconciling with the past.
... a book as much about Spain’s troubled history as its subject, a promising young man who never had the chance to find out who he was or what he stood for ... This unusual offering is an effort to heal as much as it is a way to trace an uncertain history, and will appeal to readers seeking more background on Spain and others who admire good writing.
...[a] cleverly crafted memoir ... He investigates how people living in tumultuous times develop unexpected political allegiances—and looks at the unintended consequences of those circumstances. Over time, he grows to appreciate the personal and philosophical conflicts Mena faced amid political upheaval, concluding, “I had no right whatsoever to consider myself morally superior to him.” While reflecting on his own life and family, Cercas vividly portrays a complex figure.
... a magnificent reconciliation ... Visiting the village and carefully enticing some of the skittish elders who had lived through the war to speak with him, the author clearly illustrates the deep divisions that plagued Spanish society during that tumultuous period. Cercas is a marvelous writer, and his character studies of the elusive Mena are masterly. Ultimately, grappling with the enormously nuanced, continuing story of sacrifice, passion, and dishonor allowed for significant forgiveness and release ... A beautiful, moving story that must have been extremely difficult for the author to write. Thankfully for readers, he persisted.