Lord Of All the Dead by Javier Cercas and Anne McLean (translator)

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Lord Of All the Dead by Javier Cercas and Anne McLean (translator)

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Alex Merrick
Reviewed by Alex Merrick
Summary: Lord Of All the Dead is a contemplative look at the Spanish Civil War. It focuses specifically on the author's great uncle, Manuel Mena, who fought for General Franco. It asks the question can a man be a hero if he fought for the wrong side. It answers this with consideration and elegance
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2019
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 978-0857058324

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Lord Of All the Dead is a journey to uncover the author's lost ancestor's life and death. Cercas is searching for the meaning behind his great uncle's death in the Spanish Civil War. Manuel Mena, Cercas' great uncle, is the figure who looms large over the book. He died relatively young whilst fighting for Francisco Franco's forces. Cercas ruminates on why his uncle fought for this dictator. The question at the centre of this book is whether it is possible for his great uncle to be a hero whilst having fought for the wrong side.

Now, as a Leftist, a work such as this is interesting. My own beliefs colour the way I read this book and reflect on the way I view Mena. Therefore, I was eager to sneer at the ways Cercas justified Mena's choices. A quote such as [the future] modifies the meaning and perception of the past could initially, to us, readers of the future, come across as being an apologist sentiment. It illustrates that only we can see how reprehensible Francoists were with the luxury of hindsight. It is our present that frames the past. However, Cercas sets out to show that Mena can embody noble and pure aims whilst fighting for the wrong side. Cercas does not ignore the brutality of Francoist Spain. For him though, this book is about his family. The context is Spain, but the story is about the individual lives caught in a bloody and misguided war. Cercas understands people hold different views and therefore they will perceive things differently. He alludes to this by mentioning how battles have multiple purposes; they can be fought for tactical and propaganda advantages and therefore there are different ways of reading a victory.

It is ironic that Cercas frequently mentions he wants to only talk in facts when our modern world is littered with alternative facts. He does not want to be a literati, because literati can fantasise, but not me: fantasy is forbidden to me. Cercas seems to have no actual confidence in his writing which is evident from this quote. The sentiment that Cercas will only write about his great uncle in facts is admirable and illustrative of his reverence for his uncle. However, this seems like an excuse for his own writing. It is Cercas saying it is not his fault that the writing may not be fanciful or exciting; he is merely reporting the facts. This self-consciousness is reiterated towards the beginning when his friend attacks him for writing another book about the Spanish Civil War, Cercas previously wrote Soldiers of Salamis. He writes some will attack you for idealising the Republicans… others will accuse you of revisionism or of massaging Francoism. It is as if Cercas is anticipating what the reader will be thinking so wants to show that he is not trying to do either of these things. He is just presenting the facts. This would be fine if he had not broken cardinal sin 1: he told us this, he did not show us this. However, throughout the book, he imbues Mena with character whilst recounting his life. Therefore, this section is redundant. He colours Mena's life with shades of grey to signify the man behind the belief system, behind the soldier. Cercas wants to, first and foremost, tell the story of his great uncle.

The crux of the book is can one be noble and pure and still fight for a mistaken cause? Cercas colours the details of Mena's beliefs and justifications to build the portrait of an honourable, conflicted man who tried to do right by his family. Cercas and my views do not align with Mena, however, in these divided times, it is especially key to remember we are not just our political beliefs. Mena was a human being and still worthy of his ancestor's love.

This idea of nobility and purity in death is a misguided belief and one that seems to always arise during times of war. It is used to justify the death of civilians, the death of young men, the death of families. A death should not elevate a person's standing in history, that is reserved for their life. One running motif in Lord Of All the Dead is that of Achilles. Achilles died a kalos thanatos, a beautiful death. It is easy to see how Cercas would want to see Mena in this blindingly beautiful light. However, it is blinding because it obfuscates. Cercas, whilst reading The Odyssey, reads the section where Odysseus meets with Achilles in the underworld. Achilles exclaims that I would rather toil as the slave of a penniless, landless labourer, than reign here as lord of all the dead. It is easier to see your ancestor as a noble and pure fighter than as a young man who gave his life away for a repressive regime.

This work seems to be as much about Cercas as it does about Mena. Cercas, towards the end of the book, writes with loftier ambitions. He uses Mena as a symbol for all his ancestors. He sees himself as the author of his ancestors, the one to tell their stories. To write a story, you must give part of yourself to the narrative. Perhaps, somewhat selfishly, by immortalising his great uncle, Cercas aims to immortalise himself and his family.

If you enjoyed Lord Of All the Dead by Javier Cercas and want to read more about the Spanish Civil War and Spain under Francisco Franco, you might enjoy Franco's Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936 by Jeremy Treglown.

Buy Lord Of All the Dead by Javier Cercas and Anne McLean (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lord Of All the Dead by Javier Cercas and Anne McLean (translator) at Amazon.co.uk

Buy Lord Of All the Dead by Javier Cercas and Anne McLean (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lord Of All the Dead by Javier Cercas and Anne McLean (translator) at Amazon.com.


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