Search for the hero

Boyd Tonkin salutes Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, the winner of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
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The Independent Culture

At a conference on literary translation in Oxford last weekend, someone complained bitterly that every foreign novel that makes any sort of impact in Britain has to deal with the grand headline events of history, rather than with everyday life. At that point, I had to bite my tongue. I knew by then that Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and published by Bloomsbury, had won this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize - on Monday, author and translator each picked up a cheque for £5,000 at a ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall. I knew equally that, if you're seeking an example of commanding modern fiction that revisits the landmarks of modern history at the same time as it reveals their long aftermath in ordinary lives, you need look no further than Soldiers of Salamis. It is a novel that, with immense subtlety, humanity and wit, finds small mercies within the big picture of conflict and tragedy.

Cercas, born in 1962 and the author of three previous books, lives, writes and teaches literature in Girona, Catalonia. He has already won a clutch of awards in Spain with his deeply felt but lightly written novel about the myths and memories of the Spanish Civil War. The book has sold more than 500,000 copies, and David Trueba's much-praised recent film of it picked up a Goya award - Spain's version of the Baftas - in January. (When are we going to see it here, by the way?)

Susan Sontag praised Soldiers of Salamis as "a quick-witted, tender quest for truth and the possibility of reconciliation in history", while Alberto Manguel has said that Cercas "has succeeded, with one perfectly crafted book, in single-handedly redeeming the epic genre". Yes, it does have an epic theme, and an epic sweep, but it achieves a touching and often comic intimacy as well.

Soldiers of Salamis begins as a shaggy-dog story, more Lucky Jim than Homage to Catalonia. The drifting journalist and failed novelist "Javier Cercas" (a fictional character more than a self-portrait) blunders around Girona in search of subject. He finds it, haphazardly, in the form of of a "true tale" from the closing months of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 - even though, like so many younger people in Spain, he had formerly dismissed the period as fodder only for "old men's nostalgia and fuel for the imagination of unimaginative novelists".

The "true tale" concerns one of Franco's pet intellectuals: the pioneer Falangist and strutting dandy Rafael Sánchez Mazas (who, unlike our blundering "Javier", really did exist). He manages to flee a firing-squad in a wintry wood outside Barcelona thanks to a baffling act of mercy by an unknown Republican soldier. As the proud but naive right-wing ideologist hides out in woods and secures the reluctant aid of Catalan farmers, Cercas enters the pseudo-heroic and self-dramatising world of Sánchez Mazas and Francoist mythology - in a style that tricked a couple of reviewers into confusing it with the author's own.

Sánchez Mazas survives as a lazy, privileged drone during the blank decades of Franco's stifling dictatorship. Then, in another of the book's neat shifts of gear and tone, our narrator goes in quest for the real hero of that time and place: the Republican soldier who turned his gun away. Did the foul-mouthed, hard-drinking veteran Enrico Miralles, tracked down to a French old folks' home, really save the skin of the "first fascist", on a whim? The dénouement reveals - well, almost all. We do find out that Miralles spent nine tough years as a genuine warrior for liberty: for democratic Spain, for the Free French in north Africa, then against Hitler in Normany and Germany. The novel, to our surprise, has stumbled across an authentic hero.

Sánchez Mazas believed in the fascist myth of the "squad of soldiers" which, like the Athenians at Salamis, "saved civilisation" at the last gasp. From the defence of Madrid to the crossing of the Siegfried Line and the nemesis of the Third Reich, the boozing and cursing Miralles really did belong to that squad. Our stance shifts again - as it has throughout - and we sense the texture not of another lie or legend, another myth or memory, but of solid ground.

Anne McLean's translation captures all the gravity and grace of a novel that crams a broad, rich canvas into a modest frame. Soldiers of Salamis is a study of memory and forgetting, of courage and delusion, as much as a straightforward narrative of wartime victors and victims. It is consistently moving, surprisingly funny, and utterly accessible. And it rewrites the headlines of history on behalf of all of us who will be remembered - if at all - only in the smallest of small print.

WIN THE SHORTLIST - AND A BOTTLE OF CHAMPAGNE

Win the six novels short-listed for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, plus a bottle of Champagne Taittinger to enhance your enjoyment of them. In addition to the champagne (courtesy of Taittinger), the winning entrant will receive this year's victorious novel, Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas (published by Bloombsury), and all the runners-up: Welcome to Paradise by Mahi Binebine (Granta); Q by Luther Blissett (Heinemann); Lizard Tails by Juan Marsé (Harvill); Money to Burn by Ricardo Piglia (Granta); and Mrs Sartoris by Elke Schmitter (Faber & Faber).

Answer the question below, and send your answer on a postcard by Friday 7 May to: Foreign Fiction Competition, Books Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS. The winner will be the first correct solution chosen at random. All normal Independent competition rules will apply.

"On what date did Madrid fall to the Nationalist forces at the end of the Spanish Civil War?"

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