Cercas’s US debut is a strange and intriguing amalgam of epic, elegy, and mystery about a journalist’s efforts to uncover the story behind a soldier’s quasi-miraculous escape from firing squad in the Spanish Civil War.
How much of the tale is fiction, many readers will ask, since most of the characters are historical figures and the narrator, like the author, is a Spanish writer named Javier Cercas—but never mind all that. We begin with a broken-down journalist in a provincial town who has written a few novels that flopped and is depressed because his father has died and his wife has left him. While researching an article commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, Javier hears an interesting legend and works it into the piece: Nationalist hero Rafael Sánchez Mazas, founder of the right-wing Falange Party and onetime cabinet minister under Franco, was once captured by leftist troops, shot by firing squad—and survived. Not only that, but afterward, making his way across enemy lines, he was discovered and recognized by a Communist guerrilla: an unknown militiaman who deliberately let him get away. Among the usual letters to the editor after the article is published, Javier receives contradictory leads as to the true identity of the soldier, and he becomes increasingly intrigued. He tracks down the son of a Communist partisan who sheltered Sánchez Mazas during his escape and discovers a notebook kept by the escapee describing his ordeal. Eventually, he pieces together an account of Sánchez Mazas’s exploits during the last days of the war, and he finally meets the man whom he believes spared his life. But is it really him? It doesn’t matter—like the sled in Citizen Kane, the man in the forest (whoever he was) eventually becomes much less interesting than the search itself.
Cercas’s lyric intensity becomes quite moving (especially toward the end) in a beautiful account of loss and reconciliation.