Javier Cercas grew up hearing the legend of his adored great-uncle Manuel Mena, who died at nineteen in the bloodiest battle of the Spanish Civil War—while fighting for Franco's army. Through visits back to his parents' village in southern Spain, interviews with survivors, and research into the murkiest corners of the war, the author pieces together the life of this enigmatic figure and of an entire generation.
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.
... 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.