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.
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.