The Lord of All the Dead

Javier Cercas

Maclehose Press, £20

In Spain the years 1936 to1939 are as memorable as 1939 to1945 are for people in the UK. We look back at the end of WWII with a sense of pride and optimism, despite the obvious evils inextricable from that period. The end of the Spanish Civil War, however, is marked more with a sense of extinguished hope. After all, the wrong side won. It was eighty years ago this past January when Republican fighters started fleeing to France in what is known in Spain as The Retreat. General Franco’s rule over Spain lasted until the dictator’s death in 1975.

The Spanish Civil War has always been a rich source for literature, partly because so many writers – George Orwell, Laurie Lee, Andre Malraux – took up arms in the fight against fascism. We tend to remember those who served on the Republican side, probably because their morals don’t outrage our own too much. In this brave political and family history, however, Javier Cercas unearths the life of his great uncle, Manuel Mena, who died fighting for the Falangist and Francoist cause, and whom, for many years, was “the official hero” of his family.

We learn early on that Cercas has long wanted to write about Mena. He put off the task because “telling his story would not only mean taking on his political past but also the political past of my whole family, which was the past that most embarrassed me.” Instead, for years Cercas accumulated as much information about Mena as possible. There is very little hard evidence about Mena’s life, so Cercas relied on testimony from his elderly friends and family in the village of Ibahernando, in the Caceres region, near the Portuguese border. As such, this book is as much about the Cercas’ search for Mena as it is about Mena himself.

Indeed, one of the strengths of Lord of All the Dead is the breadth of its subject matter. We learn enough about Mena to know the bare outline of his life and why he decided to fight for The Falange. But, more interestingly, we also discover the truth about why other Spaniards joined one side or another. For instance, in the early days of The Falange, before it fully embraced fascism, it exhibited some of the same ideals as the revolutionary left. It was anti-capitalist and favoured an economy run not on class lines, but on syndicalism. This in part explains why some fighters could be socialists one day, Falangists the next.

Men – it’s more often than not men – go to war for many reasons. It is easy to think that because the 1930s was such an idealistic period, everyone who took up arms did so with a firm belief in a cause. Some, however, were simply afraid of the political chaos of the time. Cercas’ cousin, Alejandro, says their respective grandfathers - who both fought on the Falangist side - were “traumatised by fear, disorder, and by the impossibility of co-existing in peace…neither of them went to war out of political passion, because they wanted to change the world or bring about a national-syndicalist revolution. They went to war because they felt it was their obligation, because they didn’t see any other way out.”

In this way, Cercas’ book consistently examines why someone might act against their own interests, and a superb companion piece to Cercas’ novel The Soldiers of Salamis, in which a Republican soldier saves the life of a Falangist leader. Both books also explore the question all books about war must: what makes a hero? The phrase Lord of All the Dead is taken from the only passage in The Odyssey that features Achilles. In The Iliad, Achilles represents the perfect immortal hero: someone who has died for their ideals and whose beautiful death secures them a place in immortal memory.

Franco’s propaganda instilled in its young lieutenants like Manuel Mena the illusion of “epic fame” attributed to heroes. Mena’s death, however, was far from beautiful, and he might not have even died for his ideals, as the Cercas family thought for years. Nevertheless, in this elegant and penetrating narrative Cercas shows us how important it is that Mena’s life is not forgotten.