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"Don't judge a book by its cover". So the old saying goes. And, as old sayings go, it has quite a lot of relevance to Guernica. I'd seen the book around lots (it regularly crops up on the shelves of charity shops). However, thanks to the dull, uninspiring cover (mine is different from the one shown in the Dooyoo image) and my total lack of interest in (and ignorance of) Spanish history, it just didn't appeal to me. Eventually, someone leant me a copy with a strong recommendation that I should read it. I was pleased to discover that what lies between the cover is far better than the cover itself.
Guernica is an ambitious tale following the lives and fortunes of a small group of related people who live in the historically important Basque town of Guernica. The fiercely independent town is infamous for a bombing of the town by Nazi forces in the late 1930s, an event which is central to this book and which impacts deeply on the lives of the characters in it. As well as telling the fictional tale of these characters, it interweaves real historical characters and events, such as Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron) and his cousin; and Pablo Picasso, painter of the famous Guernica mural.
The fictional characters are superbly dawn. Since the book covers the period from just before the German bombing through to the middle of World War II, we observe their development over a long period and see how they grow and develop as people. We become intimately involved in the ups and downs of their lives and their problems and worries become our problems and worries. Author Dave Boling creates a vibrant sense of a close-knit community, who stand and fall together.
The well-drawn characters also give Boling the opportunity to consider the Basque character and history - something which is crucial to understanding this book. The issue of Basque national identity is a very sensitive one and it would have been all too easy for this to become a polemical work. Boling steers clear of this pitfall, however and presents a measured account of Basque identity and culture which is easily understandable and digestible. As we witness the growth and development of the characters, it informs our own understanding of their sense of place and purpose.
What is most important about Guernica is its sense of humanity. Each of the characters experiences joy, tragedy and loss. This is not done in a melodramatic way, but in a way which is almost mundane and routine and thus is entirely plausible. Everyone knows that life has its ups and downs and Guernica captures this perfectly as the characters' lives lurch from hope to despair (and sometimes back again) often in the space of a few short hours.
Perhaps ironically, it's the real-life elements that don't work quite so well, particularly the sub-plot involving Picasso. Occasionally, the book will draw back from Guernica to focus on the artist as he creates his mural, and this never quite gels. Unlike the fictional sections (where the reader is introduced to the characters gradually and given the information they need to place them into context), the real life elements are less well handled. For example, it is assumed that the reader is familiar with the Guernica mural and its significance to the main story is only established via oblique references. If you are totally unfamiliar with the mural, you will wonder why on earth the book keeps making these diversions which are seemingly tangential to the plot. My advice would be that if you have never seen the Guernica mural, look it up before you read this book - both the painting and the novel will make far more sense if you do.
The book can initially be a little disorientating, since it deliberately leaves large gaps in the history of its characters. One moment we will be reading about someone as a young child, then as the next chapter begins, it gradually becomes clear that you are still reading about the same character, but as much as ten years might have passed by. This is done in such a subtle way, that it is only through inference that you realise that time has passed in the blink of an eye that it took you to turn the page, On the plus side, it means Boling never has to resort to clunky narrative techniques beloved of so many novels "As he thought again of those events ten years earlier..."). Once you adapt to the style, it is a very effective storytelling technique that allows Boling to chart the progress of his characters without getting bogged down in the minutiae of their daily existence.
What sets Guernica apart from other historical fiction is not just the sweeping scale of its narrative and the realistic characters, but the incredible sense of place and atmosphere. Before reading this book, I only knew the barest details of Spain's history in this period, but everything about Guernica feels right. Boling perfectly re-creates the fiercely independent nature of the Basque region and its inhabitants; their hostility towards forced assimilation with the Spanish and their resentment of Franco's forces. My dad, who lived in Spain for a while during the Franco period, confirms that the sense of fear and suspicion is very faithfully recreated. Again, this is done in subtle fashion; in the way characters make veiled comments to each other or undertake subversive activities which undermine the authority of the Spanish invaders. This makes it far more powerful than if it had focused on firebrand rebels who spewed political dogma with every line of dialogue. Guernica is a book about ordinary people trying to live life as they always have, in the face of serious oppression.
Despite such a realistic setting, the book never gets too bogged down in Spanish politics. Certainly, it establishes the sense of fear, suspicion and hostility which were the hallmarks of Franco's Spain, but there is little consideration of the various constantly shifting alliances which marked the period. You don't need to be an expert on Spanish history to appreciate the fine detail and Guernica never risks providing so much information that it becomes just another history book, albeit one in fictional form.
It's just a pity that towards the end, the novel starts to overstretch itself. Having forged a compelling tale, the final section (which occurs during the war) takes things just a little too far. This introduces a British airman who becomes entangled in the lives of the main characters and relies on one coincidence too many to be convincing. Yet, whilst it did feel a little too neat and a little too convenient, it also felt like the right ending; and sometimes that's the most important thing.
The conclusion is pleasingly open to interpretation. Although it ends on a note of hope, the future of many of the characters is still uncertain. War is still raging in Europe, and it's left up to the reader to decide whether the family will survive further disaster or whether this is merely a brief respite from the horrors of the world.
Even if (like me) you have no knowledge of (or interest in) Spanish history, this compelling tale of one family's struggle through a turbulent period will keep you reading right to the end. Guernica offers a superb blend of fiction, reality and raw emotion.
© Copyright SWSt 2012
If the First World War is notable for trench warfare and the first use of tanks in the combat zone, then the Second World War is likely remembered for the first widespread use of the bombing of civilian targets. What many don't know, however, is that the Germans practiced and perfected their use of aerial bombardment of the civilian population during the Spanish Civil War, when the fascist governments in Italy and Germany provided help to Franco's rebels in overthrowing the government.
Picasso painted a giant mural immortalising the event but it is true to say that even within Spain (at least in the south), there are many who are unaware of the horrific bombing raids that virtually annihilated the town of Guernica, the historic heart of Spain's Basque country. The Basques had been granted autonomy within a Spanish state but it was no part of Franco's plan to allow this to continue; it was in Guernica that generations of Basques had gathered around an ancient tree to debate the laws and elect their leaders and so Wolfram von Richthofen, commander of the aerial attacks on Spanish targets, chose Guernica for what was to become one of the bloodiest attacks on a civilian population in history. If Guernica embodied the Basque spirit and history, then Guernica and the Basques there would have to be destroyed.
Dave Boling's "Guernica" tells the story of the Navarro and Ansotegui families, joined in marriage and united by tragedy, at the heart of which are the three Ansotegui brothers, Justo, Josepe and Xabier. It's essentially a family saga covering three generations but the central focus of the story is the bombing of Guernica. The story begins as the three brothers are growing up; their mother dies young and their father - we don't learn exactly why but we can guess - abandoned the boys a couple years later. Justo assumes responsibility for his younger brothers; he's a determined and headstrong young man who, when he grows up, is known throughout the region for his physical strength. He marries a local girl, Mariangeles, and they have a daughter Miren. Meanwhile, Josepe, the middle brother leaves Guernica and heads for the coast, becoming a fisherman. The youngest, Xabier, leaves for a seminary in Bilbao where he trains to become a priest.
Xabier is different to many of his fellow priests; he won't be persuaded to fall in line with Vatican orders to tacitly support the fascists. He is kept informed of the progress of Franco's rebels by Aguirre, the first official Basque President, who passes on information under the cover of the confessional. As the situation becomes more grave and the rebels move rapidly north, Xabier feels compelled to go to his hometown to warn his family and the people of Guernica about the danger.
Although there weren't quite as many characters as I'd expected for a multi-generational saga, I did find at first that I had to flick back to remind myself who some of the characters were and I'll admit I was a little lost quite early on and almost gave up, something I rarely do with a novel. I can see why Boling chose to stretch the story from the childhood of the brothers because the experience of Justo in particular has a great bearing on how he behaves as a husband and a father, especially in the latter part of the story. However, it did create an imbalance between the development of the various characters with some being quite sketchy and others being over-developed.
An interesting addition to the narration was provided by occasional short sections told from the points of view of Pablo Picasso and Wolfram von Richthofen. Picasso had been approached and asked to give his backing to the fascists but he deplored what was happening in his home country and painting "Guernica" was his way of telling the world what had happened there. Von Richthofen congratulates himself about the "successes" of the bombing missions; it is an unnerving insight into what would be inflicted on Britain in just a few years.
The overall story is thoroughly engaging and I loved the descriptions of Basque life. Boling is a journalist turned author but he clearly knows that a novelist does not tell but shows. Basque traditions - dancing, food, the family structure - are woven nicely into the story and prove illuminating.
The trouble is that the story as Boling relates it is highly romanticised and lacking in the background development that would render the story more whole for readers who don't have much prior knowledge of the conflict. There is also the paradox that if you do have the knowledge, you'll know how much Boling conveniently skims over or disregards altogether. The Basques had been looking over their shoulders since the early 1930s; it was against the law to speak the Basque language in public and the celebration of Basque festivals was largely outlawed. The impression one gets from "Guernica", however, is that right until the time of the attacks, the people of Guernica were merrily going around being as Basque as they possibly could.
This is echoed in the idea that everyone in Guernica (and the Basque country in general) was against Franco. There is a simple stance of rebels bad, Basques good and while one cannot deny that the Basques suffered a terrible fate, Boling's presentation of the situation is hugely biased. He fails miserably to get across the truth that the Spanish Civil War split many families, even among the Basques. There is a reference to some people denouncing their neighbours - people can turn against good friends if hungry enough - but it's not elaborated on; no explanation of how the informants were dealt with and we are left wondering who in this story might have been going off to the police with tales about their neighbours.
The best part of "Guernica" is the description of the attack itself. It is, at the same time, restrained and yet graphic. When Alaia, a blind friend of the Ansotegui family, is left alone in the marketplace to look after herself, my heart was thumping hard inside my chest and I felt tears welling up. The descriptions of people machine-gunned as they tried to run for cover and people suffocating in hastily erected but inadequate shelters were sickening but absolutely necessary. The immediate aftermath is also described with harrowing reality, conscious people with their limbs trapped, unaware that the building they were in was about to collapse. I must admit to being surprised at how much this section of the novel moved me. Taking into account the novel's title and the unnecessary prologue which in effect reveals the final outcome, I was amazed by how much Boling's telling of the actual bombing affected me.
At first I wasn't sure about the idea of introducing the thoughts of Picasso and von Richthofen into the story. They don't interact with any of the fictional characters but (assuming one does know their connection with what happened in Guernica) their inclusion adds a sinister sense of foreboding and heightened the charged atmosphere prior to the attack.
What Boling has chosen to do is tell the story from the personal (the Basque) point of view rather than the political. Xabier is the only one of the brothers to have any kind of political insight and although he stands in Guernica's church warning of the rapidly advancing rebels, you get the impression he's doing it more for his family than for the town in general. Curiously there's no discussion of what's going on elsewhere until the rebels are almost at the door and even then there's none of the debate I'd expected to read about. There's no gossip, no rumour, no bravado, it just isn't mentioned at all.
Despite the contradictions and failings, "Guernica" is a highly engaging and readable novel. As a family saga it doesn't have characters you can care sufficiently about; in fact, the main characters are caricatures rather than real people you can believe in. As a historical novel it misses the mark too; a few details don't ring true and there are problems because some areas lack explanation and background, whereas others are bogged down in too much detail. Still, this is a first novel and there is a great deal for Dave Boling to be proud of. Don't be fooled by favourable comparisons with "Captain Corelli's Mandolin", "Guernica" is nowhere near as brilliant as Louis De Berniere's excellent novel. However, time spent reading "Guernica" is not wasted; this may be a rather light account of the bombing of Guernica but there is no disputing the fact that Boling tells a good story. I look forward to his next and hope that he'll put right the mistakes of his first.
For a more realistic look at the hardships faced by civilians during the Spanish Civil War I would suggest that CJ Sansom's "Winter in Madrid" is a better read. For a simplified but better constructed of the war in general and it's impact on one family, Victoria Hislop's "The Return" is an good read.
The front cover of Guernica has a by-line that reads "An epic story of love, family and war" and the author Dave Boling shows a short span of history of exactly this.
Firstly, a bit about Guernica. Guernica is a Basque town in Spain. Basque people are usually found in coastal areas and are definitely in the minority with their own traditions and language but generally do not like being referred to as Spanish!
Most people would (if they have at all) have heard of Guernica for the following reasons; it was bombed to destruction during the Spanish civil unrest on the eve of World War II. An unknown number of lives were lost, and Pablo Picasso made it a subject of one of his paintings in the same year as a result.
Consequently, in this book, this bombing and the civil unrest provides the background - or rather the main focus of this book and includes some excerpts of Pablo Picasso's life at that time. I will point out here however, that I found these excerpts a bit unnecessary but I appreciated that they provided a historical focus for the story as a whole. I also noticed a quote on the back of the book that I didn't notice before reading that says, "if you've ever wondered what Picasso wanted to say with his violent angular painting, this is the 370-page caption you were after." So I think that someone more interested in getting in to the mind of Picasso (supposedly!) during the time he painted "Guernica" would actually find this an essential part of the book.
Firstly, I thought this might be a lot for me to take in, and not really my cup of tea. Historical accounts, no matter how fictionalised they are, sometimes lose me and I tend to get bored with all the details. Unfortunately, I did find that this was the case with this book, and it was saved by certain elements. For instance, Boling makes this an extremely character driven novel which does make this a much more interesting account of what COULD have happened to some of the families during this time.
The story interlinks two Basque families beginning in 1893 with three brothers, Justo, Josepe and Xabier who run a farm between them when their mother dies after the birth of Xabier, and their father seems incapable of getting over the loss of his wife. This family is soon linked (but I obviously won't mention what happens and spoil it for you all) to the Navarro's and the story runs straight through to the bombing of Guernica in 1937. However, from the back cover, anyone can see that Miguel Navarro and Miren Ansotegui are the main focus of this story and their love and passion for each other as well as their Basque roots is what makes this story a compelling read.
All the characters In this story are rich and interesting and the history of not only the Basque way of life but the Navarro and Ansotegui families made me want to read on and find out what happened to them before and after the bombing.
However, as I have already mentioned, I did generally still find the masses of information that Boling poured in to the book regarding the politics and war surrounding the civil unrest slightly confusing and quite often a bit dull! I'm sure to those interested in this period of time in Spain would find it tremendously absorbing but I couldn't help myself from skipping over large sections where the overload of information became too much!
The book is sectioned in to timelines and within that, the stories of many of the characters are told. My boredom and impatience came when I started reading about Dodo Navarro and his political campaign. I'm sure that these sections were supposed to be exciting and were supposed to inspire the reader to think about the brave women and men in that time who were willing to help out their allies and fellow Basques, but I couldn't help feeling that Bolings journalistic instincts had taken over and it became an article about the atrocities in Guernica and across the country - the actual author of a novel had disappeared.
For me, this book was definitely saved by the rich tapestry woven between two families and the characters and relationships that the author managed to develop so successfully, and this is a truly harrowing account of human suffering and courageousness.
However I felt that mixing too much factual account with fiction ruined this and making it too much like a journalistic piece. I would say that perhaps this was just the wrong type of book for me to read but anyone who is interested in some factual historical accounts mixed with fictional ones as well as family relationships, this could possibly be a very interesting read.
A long time ago, I worked in London with a man named Pedro. Tall and muscular, Pedro boasted bristling eyebrows over jutting features. He was from Spain but hated being called Spanish. "I am NOT Espanish", he would growl: "I am a BASQUE!" This book's central character reminds me of him.
* The Basque lands
The Basque country (Euzkadi) stretches across the mountainous region to the North of Spain and into France. Although divided by the French-Spanish border, the Basque region considers itself a distinct nation and has its own language. As shown by my pal Pedro, Basques are fiercely proud of their country and its heritage.
The region's ancient capital is the small town of Guernica, on the Spanish side. On Monday, 26th April, 1937, a German Luftwaffe battalion, supporting Franco's revolutionary army, bombed it flat. Monday was market day in Guernica.
This bombing was the first of its kind: deliberately targeted at civilians, with the political objective of displaying strength to a troublesome people. As a military and political tactic, Guernica presaged many future atrocities including Hiroshima.
It shocked the world. Picasso - Spanish, though not a Basque - was inspired to make his largest artwork, "Guernica", expressing his anger at this wanton destruction of innocent people. His mural, painted in Paris, is now on display at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, next to the Prado.
Dave Boling tells the story, not only of Guernica's bombing, but of four Basque generations spanning two intertwined families and 60 years. During those years, Spain suffered economic privations following the reign and abdication of King Alfonso, a brief Republic, the rise of Franco and the Second World War. Each event impacted heavily on the Basques, who were periodically banned from speaking their own language, isolated from national developments and - during the war - crucial to the resistance movement.
Basque integrity, then as now, remains firm and spirited.
Many of us have driven over those mountains on holiday. We've been plied with Basque drinks and Basque food, heard Basque tales told with Basque humour and we've puzzled over road signs in Euskara, full of Xs and Ks. For us, the Basque country is next door. We may not speak its mysterious language but we know the food, the history, the culture - and we understand regional identity.
Dave Boling is an American, married to a Basque. "Guernica" is his first novel. He has obviously fallen in love with his wife's family and their background, as well as with her. Some of his details look a bit flaky, but he's researched this epic tale with care and enthusiasm. It radiates affection for the Basque region and its people.
* The plot.
** Spoiler! ** Don't read this if you like the story to surprise you **
A farmer just outside Guernica has three sons: Justo, Xabier and Josepe. His wife dies. He fades away. The three boys pretty much bring themselves up, learning how to run the farm as they go along. When the eldest, Justo, is 15, he inherits the farm. As the younger two reach maturity, they find their callings - Josepe as a fisherman on the French border; Xabier as a priest in Bilbão.
Justo, overcompensating for his father's absence, develops a reputation as the strongest man in Guernica. He marries a gifted dancer called Miren. They have a daughter, Mariangeles, who grows up with Miren's grace and her father's determination.
Josepe's best friend, who is also a fisherman (and smuggler), has two sons called Dodo and Miguel. Miguel, the youngest, unfortunately, has no sea legs. He eventually becomes a carpenter, moving to Guernica - where he meets and marries Mariangeles, Justo's daughter. They have a baby girl, Catalina. Miguel's elder brother Dodo, meanwhile, becomes a master smuggler: a trade that gathers in danger and importance as the political environment harshens.
Justo's youngest brother, Xabier, the priest, develops a gift for helping others and for politics. Forming a friendship with republican President Aguirre, he becomes instrumental in the campaign of resistance against Franco. At Aguirre's insistence, Xabier goes directly to Paris after the bombing to deliver his eye-witness account, which inspires Picasso's horror. That speech was delivered, in reality, by a priest of Guernica.
Mariangeles and baby Catalina are caught in the bomb blast. Scrabbling amongst the rubble to find them, Miguel tears his fingers down to the bone marrow (this really happened). After surgery, he's left with stumps of hands - his career as a carpenter is over. Justo, the strong man, tries to hold up a collapsing building and loses an arm. His wife Miren is dead.
After war breaks out, Miguel joins his brother Dodo as a Resistance worker helping to smuggle crashed Allied air crew back to England.
In the course of this work, Dodo and Miguel assist an English pilot called Charley. Back in Cambridgeshire, Charley's wife has become involved with the war's first influx of Displaced Persons: hundreds of orphaned children from Guernica. It turns out that one of these children, now aged five, is Miguel's daughter Catalina - an incredible coincidence, but no less credible than the many amazing things that do happen in wartime.
** End of spoiler *********************************************
Dave Boling's "Guernica" is a classic family saga, encompassing four generations of simple - but not stupid - peasants over a turbulent historical period. Interweaving real events and real characters with invented details, it is told with overwhelming affection.
This leads to obvious comparisons with Louis de Bernières. Like the more famous author, Boling relates everyday details of ordinary lives conducted in the midst of massive, disruptive events. His focus, however, is always on the personal: the only mystery, here, is the sheer magic of human resilience. The historical events, themselves, are epic; so is the timescale. The story needs no embellishment.
Like other reviewers, I found Boling's Americanisms irritating at times. However, Boling is American! I wouldn't have expected him to write in Euskara (if he had, I couldn't read it) - and there's no reason why he should have written in UK English just for us.
Boling's people, and their culture, look simplistic in some ways. The characters have few faults; everyone is courageously inventive. My parents' war stories sound like that, too! If not wholly accurate, it must still be the way those tales were given to the author.
To tell such a long history in less than 400 pages, without awkward breaks or missing details, is an impressive feat in itself. Telling it with such warmth and joy is a wonderful achievement for any author, let alone a first-timer.
The book rings with accordion music, dances the 'jota', tastes of roast peppers with garlic, clambers over burning rubble and speaks Euskara. I enjoyed getting lost in it.
If you love 'people' stories: yes! You'll adore it.
If you're looking for war stories: no.
Historians: yes, if you're imaginative; not if you're a stickler for facts.
Good for mid-teens upwards.
* Product information
Cover: as illustrated above
Paperback: 365 pages
Price: £9.95 from Amazon
* Background information
* Guernica, seventy years on (Times): http://tls.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25340-2647061,00.html
* Bombing of Guernica (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Guernica
* Basque Country (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basque_Country_(historical_territory)
* Euskadi tourism: http://www.turismoa.euskadi.net/s11-18805/en/
* Picasso's « Guernica » : http://londoncontemporaryart.files.wordpress. com/2009/04/picasso_guernica1937.jpg
(versions of this review also posted on amazon.com and helium.com under my own name)