Reckoning With the Wounds Still Left by the Spanish Civil War


But what of the man himself? The task of finding the real Manuel Mena could scarcely have been more daunting. His relatives burned his effects, including his papers, after his death. Cercas managed to find a couple of elderly ladies whose memories suggested that as a boy Mena was a “heartless brat.” But then he interviewed some classmates who described how, under the influence of a local schoolteacher, Mena developed a passion for knowledge and turned into an altogether more reflective and responsible adolescent.

Cercas gives himself some postmodern leeway in this narrative, every so often speculating on how, if he were to throw off all pretense of not being a novelist, he would fill in the gaps in his story. But 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 about Manuel Mena. Yet, halfway through the book, his subject remains “a blurry, distant, schematic figure, without humanity or moral complexity, as rigid, cold and abstract as a statue.”

Things start to change when he is given the notes for a speech Mena gave on leave from the front. Cercas’s great-uncle was a fascist, a devotee of the Falange. But, as Cercas shows with a quote from its founder, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, that Mena had written down, the Falange held views not so very distant from those that would ignite the passions of a post-1968 generation of young Spaniards, those valiant successors to Achilles who battled Franco’s riot police with rocks and Molotov cocktails:

“There is a capitalist system with expensive credit, with abusive privileges of shareholders and bondholders, without working, that takes the greater part of production and sinks and impoverishes employers, businessmen and workers alike.”

What finally brings Mena alive to his great-nephew is a family member’s recollection of what the by now battle-hardened alférez provisional told his brother on one of his last furloughs: He was fed up with the war and wished he didn’t have to go back to the front. Suddenly, he “had become a man of flesh and bone, a simple self-respecting muchacho disillusioned of his ideals and a soldier lost in someone else’s war, who didn’t know why he was fighting anymore.”

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