July 11, 2003

Salamina Soldiers: The story of a stare

From there, taking refuge in a hole, he heard dogs’ bark and shots and voices from the soldiers that came looking for him, knowing they didn’t have much time left, because Franco’s Army was on to them. Then my father heard some branches on his back and so he turned around to face a militia man staring right back.

He heard a scream ‘Is he there?’ My father told how the militia man stared at him for a few seconds and then without looking away screamed back ‘No one is here’, turned around and left.”

From Salamina Soldiers by Javier Cercas

By Mariana Martinez

This past Thursday (July 3), the Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT) was honored by the presence of Spanish author Javier Cercas, who after a very funny presentation by Tijuana writer Luis Humberto Crosthwite, delighted the anxious crowd by talking about his last book, Salamina Soldiers. A book first published by Tusquets in 2001 that has slowly but surely became a literary phenomenon, selling over 400,000 copies in 29 editions, ten of those in Europe alone, besides being translated to ten languages.

Javier Cercas (left) with Luis Humberto Crosthwite.

Javier Cercas, college professor and columnist for the famous Spanish newspaper El País, is the author of Relatos reales (2000) and three novels, El inquilino (1989 y 2000), El vientre de la ballena (1998, Andanzas) and Salamina Soldiers, this last one receiving many international awards, including the Chilean Critics Award, City of Barcelona award, The Salambó storytelling award and the II annual Bookstore owners award of 2001.

Salamina Soldiers takes an interesting anecdote as a starting point: It takes place during the last days of Spain’s civil war, days when fascist writer Rafael Sánchez Mazas (Madrid, 1894-1966) co-founder of La Falange, escapes from a massive fusilamiento and hides in Collell forest, in Cataluña. The soldiers’ urgently seek to find him, until one of them finds him hiding, wet and harmless; staring him right in the eyes, the soldier lied to his mates and leaves, saving his life.

This anecdote becomes the obsession of a writer and journalist, Javier Cercas’ main character the novel, who launches a desperate search for the truth, setting a background analysis about war as being impersonal. As Carlos Yushimito puts it on his article in Espectáculo magazine “Above all, Javier Cercas is painting one of the deepest and most conflictive analysis about war: the fact that even though it takes place under universally valid values, such as freedom or a tolerant civilization, it is always shadowed by the impersonal. Miralles answer (the soldier who spared Sánchez Mazas life) is a new context, a profoundly human and personal one, lit by the emotion of a memory….”

Since the book came out, critics and professors have agreed Sánchez Mazas is used as an excuse to capture the readers, and some have even said he is not the main character of the story. Andrés Trapiello said “the least important part of the novel is Sánchez Mazas, he is mainly a support or a historical reference.” Historian Ramón Alquezar agrees, “they spare his life but that leads up to an escaping pilgrimage, all though cases like this have happened in every war it is the fact that it happened to him that leads up to the book, it’s what keeps you hooked.”

This story has been taken to the screen, in a movie by the same name, directed by David Trueba, a 34 year old director best known for his fims “Obra Maestra” and “La Buena Vida.” He worked with director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe, who had previously worked in Almodóvar’s last film “ Hable con ella” and “Los otros”.

For the movie adaptation Trueba changed the gender of the main character, now Lola Cercas, played by Ariadna Gil, and he made another character, a new, Mexican, student in Prof. Cercas class, played by the famous Mexican actor Diego Luna (lead in the film “Y tu mamá también”). Acting as Rafael Sánchez Mazas is Ramón Fontseré and María Botto portrays Conchi. The movie also had the collaboration of Maria Ferré, the woman who helped Sánchez Mazas back in 1939 by giving him food and shelter. Ferré who will soon turn 90, relived her sixty year old memories of the experience in front of the camera. The film was part of the Cannes Festival in May of this year and receiving great reviews, but no awards.

When he arrived in Tijuana, last week, Cercas found himself in front of a restless and well-informed audience, who either had read the book or just heard about it and found themselves restless to meet the author. With a very sincere and light approach Crosthwite presented Cercas with a passage called “readers in flames” in which he tells of his own venture through the pages of the book and his reactions as a Salamina Soldiers reader, in his usual calm and easy tone.

Contrary to most book readings, where the audience is shy and afraid to ask questions, the talk with Cercas was dynamic from the start. The author answered all the questions and comments as he talked about the disadvantages of success and added “What a novelist is in search of, is universal literary truth, that is good for every one” and about Cercas being one of his own characters he just smiled and said “I show myself to hide.” As soon as the discussion started to focus on the development of the story, someone in the audience couldn’t control himself and he screamed “Don’t tell the end” and I thanked him.

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