The Spanish Civil War has inspired several impressive literary works in English, among them Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940), Rose Macaulay’s And No Man’s Wit (1940) and George Orwell’s autobiographical account, Homage to Catalonia (1938). A less popular subject is the Basque experience during the Civil War. Many people will know of Guernica because of Picasso’s painting, but won’t necessarily be aware of the event that motivated its creation. This knowledge gap, as well as the tenacity and strength of the Basque people, prompted Dave Boling to write his fictional work. It is high time the events of 26 April 1937 were recounted.
Guernica the novel sets these events in the emotional context of one extended Basque family, narrating the horrific incidents of that day through the experiences of Justo Ansotegui, his wife, daughter, friends and neighbours.
Decades before the beginning of the Civil War, Justo is forced to assume responsibility over his two younger brothers and the family farm following the death of their mother and disappearance of their father. After a somewhat scrappy and patched-at-the-elbows upbringing by their elder brother, Josepe and Xabier set out to make their fortunes, while Justo stays behind. The breaking up of the trio triggers a breaking up of the narrative as each of the brothers’ stories is told and further protagonists are introduced. As time passes and Franco’s nationalists tighten their grip over Spain, each of the brothers finds his community and way of life threatened. Each strives to resist this increasing intimidation, until the moment of the attacks on Guernica, when the family is struck a deadly blow.
Running in parallel to the Basque narrative are the stories of General Von Richthofen, the Nazi general in charge of the bombing of Guernica, and Pablo Picasso, whose mural, first displayed at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, increased public awareness of the plight of the Basque people. The inclusion of these smaller plot-lines is successful in terms of giving a broader sense of the historical context of the attack on Guernica and the Spanish Civil War, but the tone Boling employs here often jars with the narrative of the majority of the novel. While Boling’s writing is of a high quality throughout, the prose he uses for the ‘factual’ episodes is that much better and serves to show up a certain sentimentality in the fictional plot.
This sentimentality is emphasised by the fairytale nature of many of Guernica’s characters. They have a strong emotive force because of their innocence and the horrifying events they face, but are almost entirely superficial. This is particularly true in the first half of the novel, before the attack on the town. We get more of a sense of realism post-bombing, as the survivors strive to cope with the deaths of their loved ones, but by this point it is too little, too late. The notable exception is Xabier, whose status as a priest and academic gives him greater range of expression.
Boling’s greatest strength is describing evocatively the love and loyalty shared by his characters and the horrors they encounter. His descriptions of the emotional aftermath of the Guernica attacks will summon tears in many readers, just as his portrayal of happier times for the Ansotegui family, their love affairs and bonds of friendship, cannot help but make one smile. The thirty or so pages that deal directly with the attacks are exhausting to read; Boling’s writing here is deadly in its effectiveness, mercilessly directing the reader’s gaze onto scenes of human pain and terror, each more awful than the last:
‘For more than a day Miguel lay in a basement hallway of the Carmelite convent, his unconsciousness deafening him to the cries of the burn victims and the death gasps of those irreducibly broken’ (p231).
The difficulty with putting a hugely exciting and horrendous event at the centre of a novel is what to do with your characters plot-wise after that event has taken place. Boling’s pacing suffers in the second half of the book as he introduces yet more characters and locations in an attempt to draw a complete picture of the period and tie up loose ends. There are some exciting and moving moments as the plot expands to take in people-smuggling and low-level international diplomacy, but this second half isn’t as tight as it should be.
The events that occurred in the Basque Country during the Civil War deserved a novel, and Guernica, although not perfect, is a heartfelt attempt by Boling to tell some of those stories. At its best when depicting close human relationships and the ways in which people depend upon each other, Guernica will appeal to those interested in the period, although anyone with a low tolerance for high emotion should leave well alone.