Lord Of All The Dead: A Nonfiction Novel, by Javier Cercas
At the basis of this book there are two fundamentally flawed premises. The first, and most germane to the topic of the book, is that the author seems to think that the only thing that would redeem his great-uncle of being a terrible monster is some sort of misguided idealism or, as he later decides (spoiler alert) is disillusionment with the cause of the Whites for whom he fought in the Spanish Civil War. The other flawed premise, which is equally irritating but less related to the subject of the book and more related to the author’s approach, is that the author thinks that he is the interesting part of this story instead of the heroic relative. Indeed, in reading this book I had the fond wish that a heroic Nationalist soldier could have someone write about his life who wasn’t completely out of sympathy with the cause for which he fought and died. Indeed, no one need apologize at all for having fought for or supporting the Nationalist cause either in the past or the present. The fact that the author cannot see this is a major problem with this particular book and it greatly harms the book’s enjoyment for a great many potential readers.
This book is about 250 pages long or so and it is about Manuel Mena, a young man who grew up in a small town in Extremadura named Ibahernando and who was attracted to the Falangists and became an officer in an elite regiment of Franco’s army that was repeatedly sent into the most dangerous areas where he was wounded several times before his death. For much of the book, in fact, until the very end of the book, the author claims that he was not going to write the book, which we know to be a lie because one is, in fact, reading the book. The author spends a lot of time looking through documents and visiting places related to his great uncle and eventually interviewing people who helped flesh out the family and small town dynamic that showed Manuel to be a particularly complex young man despite dying at nineteen years old with a mortal wound in one of the most deadly battles of the Spanish Civil War, the Battle of the Ebro, which ended up destroying the offensive power of the doomed Second Spanish Republic. If the author seems somewhat embarrassed with the legacy of his relative, the reader at least has no need to be.
Although there is much to be annoyed at with this book, especially the author’s self-obsessed naval gazing and his seeming desire to let everyone know that he wasn’t sympathetic to Franco’s cause at all, there are good points about this book. The author corrects some family myths and discovers a paper trail that involves murder, the deep political divides of the 1930’s, and the downsides of the attritional approach to warfare that Franco operated under, which ended up killing a lot of people. It seems a bit of hyperbole to consider Franco to be the lord of all the dead–even in Spain the leftists killed quite a few people themselves and in World War II Spain was far from the deadliest area by any means even on a proportional basis. By and large this book offers enough with the young man at the real emotional center of the book to make it worth dealing with the author’s overinflated self-regard, but it would have been an even better book had the author managed to get out of his own way and simply appreciate his dead relative and his heroism in a noble cause.