The epigraph to Javier Cercas’ latest novel is Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori — It is sweet and seemly to die for your country.
Another writer about war Wilfred Owen used this quotation from Horace’s “Odes” as the title of a poem that details the torments of soldiers stumbling “blood-shod” through the mud and gas of World War I. It ends with the caution not to tell “children ardent for some desperate glory,
“The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
“Pro patria mori.”
Seventeen-year-old Manuel Mena was probably ardent for glory in 1936 when he went to fight for the Falange in the Spanish Civil War? The few relatives who remember him told his great-nephew author, Javier Cercas, that he countered his mother’s pleas against enlistment by saying, “If I don’t return, a son of yours will have given his life for the Fatherland, and there is nothing greater than that.”
He died in 1938, age 19, in the Battle of the Ebro, one of the longest, bloodiest battles of the war, and the one that spelled the end of Republican hopes of defeating Gen. Franco, whose 1936 coup had plunged the country into three years of war followed by a fascist dictatorship that lasted until his death in 1975.
As an officer of the Ifni Riflemen, Manuel Mena led his largely North African soldiers in many battles, including the savage one at Teruel. Despite his youth, he was regularly in charge of grueling assaults in forbidding terrain. He was wounded several times, twice receiving Spain’s equivalent of a Purple Heart, and finally dying of a bullet lodged in his abdomen.
Amazingly, the author eventually interviewed one of his nurses, who explained that the single operating theater of the officers’ hospital was in use when Manuel was admitted so he died before he could be treated.
After his death, the village named a street after him. Javier Cercas’ mother had lived with him when she was a child, and adored him because he was fun and played with her. She, like all his relatives, revered him as a fallen hero.
Her son not so much. Manuel was Francoist, as were all his family. For the author this was his “most onerous legacy.” He therefore resisted telling Manuel’s story because it would mean taking on “the political past of my whole family, which was the past that most embarrassed me.”
He describes the family’s village in Extremadura as among the poorest of Spain’s poorest province. Most people were de facto serfs, and even those like the Cercas and Mena families who were tenant farmers were little better off. Nonetheless, they were considered the patricians of the village. Perhaps that influenced 17-year-old Manuel when he enlisted for the right-wing Falange rather than the Republicans.
The author often questions why Manuel, in common with so many of his compatriots, fought for the oppressor’s side. “That’s the saddest thing about Manuel Mena’s fate. That, as well as dying for an unjust cause, he died for interests that weren’t even his … he died for nothing.” The triumph of Francoism wrought no improvements. It turned the village into a desert, “swept the poor and the rich away from here. Those who were able to eat and those who went hungry.”
Javier Cercas is ever present in his non-fiction novel as both an autobiographer focused on Manuel Mena and his family, and as a third-person historian, investigating archives and interviewing people. The two personas switch off chapters. Disconcerting at first, this division of narrative modes yields a novel about investigation and discovery — about Mena, about the people of his village, about the mysteries that kickstart action.
It’s also about storytelling. At the beginning, the author claims to know little more than his mother’s fond memories. In fact, of course, he knows what he has learned from years of sleuthing. Eventually he will tell us, but by initially hiding this information he highlights the effort to unearth it and gives his readers time to ponder crucial questions.
Why do so many people support leaders and parties that oppose their interests? How does one come to terms with a family history one deplores? How can one possibly think the death of teenage Manuel anything other than an unmitigated tragedy?
The Civil War weighs heavily on Spaniards. It’s impossible to visit the country, even as a casual tourist, without noting the many museums and sites commemorating it, and hearing people, often way too young to have lived through Franco’s era, launching into tales — horror stories really — about it.
It’s a major subject for novelists, not least of them Javier Cercas in his first novel “Soldiers of Salamis,” and also in his recent “The Impostor.” Like America’s Civil War, it influences current politics and it is not fading from memory. “The Lord of All the Dead” helps us understand why this is the case.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.
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LORD OF ALL THE DEAD: A NONFICTION NOVEL
By Javier Cercas
Knopf, $26.95, 288 pages
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