La Tertulia

A discussion about books and films about Spain.

Book Review: Guernica, by Dave Boling

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Dave Boling’s Guernica is essentially why I read historical fiction. When done well it has the power to knock you out of the anesthetization that occurs from reading about the long list of  tragic events that make up human history. History very often becomes facts and figures, dates, disputes over causes and effects in the timeline, but less often a careful reflection on what is must have felt like for the human beings who lived at the time. Guernica does this, and well.

The bombing of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe acting partly on behalf of the nationalist rebels during the Spanish Civil War is widely recognized as one of the great tragedies of the 20th century.  It was the first instance of the aerial bombing that would be commonplace in World War II and horrifically, for the Nazis it was simply experiment. They saw the devastating civil war in Spain as an exploitable opportunity to test destructive technologies and terror strategies in preparation for the larger, looming European conflict. The victims of Guernica were thus merely test subjects to the German bombers that devastated their town.

Historians dispute the number of casualties at Guernica, and this dispute takes on great polemical weight in Spain, a country where talk of the civil war sparks intense, antagonistic feelings even over 70 years later.  The Basque government  at the time reported casualties at 1,654 while more recent studies assert the number to be much lower, somewhere between 200-400.  While it is important for the historical record that casualties be counted accurately, too often we do a quick mental calculation that attempts to gauge the degree of tragedy based on the numbers. Guernica, as good historical fiction, temporarily renders the statistics completely and utterly irrelevant and humanizes the tragedy.

By the time the bombing comes around three quarters of the way through the novel, we are already devastated. We have been devastated since 20 or 30 pages into the novel when we like and care about Boling’s rich and carefully woven characters, and we know what’s coming. We already care about Justo, the oldest of three brothers essentially orphaned as youth, his daughter Miren, a cheerful, positive and caring girl who becomes the life the town, Alaia, a blind girl Miren reaches out to early on, who, we are surprised to learn, has many facets. We are introduced to the brothers Miguel and Dodo, whose fates are changed one night in the Christmas season when Dodo gets in a scuffle with the Civil Guard. The bombing looms over this idyllic setting from the beginning with brief, foreshadowing scenes about the preparations of lead Nazi pilot Wolfgang von Richtofen.

Interestingly, when the historic bombing of Guernica comes, only a few pages of the book are dedicated to it, even though it is ostensibly the most important event in the novel and its raison d’être. Instead of mass gore, Boling latches onto not only the deep connections we’ve made to the characters, but also subtle yet powerful expressions of human nature, such as a telling feature of how far the initial survivors of the bombing went to save their loved ones. Boling writes in his “letter from the author:”

When I researched the bombing, I read stories of a number of Guernica victims who appeared at hospitals with strange symptoms: Their hands were mutilated. The injuries weren’t from bombing of burning, but from their insistence on digging barehanded through jagged rubble — until the flesh tore from their bones — in the single-minded attempt to saved their loved ones.

Such observations show us, remind us, how valuable each and every life is. It is in small scenes like these that the death count is rendered secondary. The lowest estimates are already too much. The highest become unimaginable. They force the question: how far would each of us go, how much would we put at stake to save the life of a loved one. The loss of a limb? Probably.

Indeed, as Boling himself states in an interview, the novel isn’t so much about tragedy as human resilience, how people rise up to the challenge and keep going even after bereavement. It is also about the human tendency to achieve freedom at all costs, the underground resistance to Franco’s regime despite the great danger it involved. Guernica also doesn’t stop after the bombing. It goes on to show how these characters deal with their losses, how they find ways to survive. Life goes on after tragedy. Importantly, the novel also goes on into the first years of World War II, to show how Guernica was deeply relevant to the history of Europe. The tragedy of this small Spanish town at the hands of fascists, which the democratic European powers tacitly permitted for a variety of reasons, would later turn out to haunt them.  In this way, Guernica seamlessly intertwines the personal story with a solid historicity that makes for a subtle yet deeply powerful novel.

Cover of Guernica, by Dave Boling

Cover Photograph (C) Denis Waugh/Lensmodern

Guernica, by Dave Boling
(C) 2008

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Written by tertulian

August 4, 2010 at 9:30 pm

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