By: Dave Boling
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase
In 1935, Miguel Navarro finds himself on the wrong side of the Spanish Nationalists, so he flees to Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basque region. In the midst of this idyllic, isolated bastion of democratic values, Miguel finds more than a new life-he finds a love that not even war, tragedy or death can destroy. The bombing of Guernica was a devastating experiment in total warfare by the German Luftwaffe in the run-up to World War II . For the Basques, it was an attack on the soul of their ancient nation. History and fiction merge seamlessly in this beautiful novel about the resilience of family, love, and tradition in the face of hardship.
I have been eyeing this book for years, perhaps ever since I read Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind (review) and Romano-Lax’s The Spanish Bow (review). I had studied a bit about the Basque region in grad school, their identity and relationship with the Spanish government & the rest of the country but I believe this is the first time I’m reading a fictional novel set in the region.
This book is part of the Everything Espana Reading Challenge 2014 that I am participating in.
Guernica follows the stories of a number of key inhabitants living in and around Guernica before and during the Spanish Civil War. I agree with a reviewer on GoodReads who suggested that the novel is similar to de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (review) in the way it portrays town life and how the shadow and consequence of war affects the lives of its inhabitants. The story contains an interesting cast of characters, primarily from Justo and his family (siblings, children); some of them, like Justo himself, seem larger than life, but they are fundamentally human with their own strengths and flaws. The story drew me in from the first page and made me care for these characters even as the spectre of the impending attack weighs heavily for the first half of the novel.
I did however wonder about the inclusion of some characters in this novel: while I understand Picasso’s connection to Guernica, he seemed rather removed from the story, like the chorus of a play. His last scene was great, but I didn’t think he added a whole lot to the story. Same goes with the scenes involving von Richthofen and the German unit who bombed Guernica; their characterisations were rather flat and only added a factual element of what was being planned for the bombings on the other end. Otherwise it could have been left out, it didn’t really add to my reading experience.
The narrative was a slow burn; the reader is aware that something is going to happen, but you’re not sure when it will happen. In the meantime, the reader simply follows the characters, watch them grow up, fall in love, make friends, get married, have children…Sometimes there are sweeping time jumps, such as the gap between Miguel and Miren’s marriage and the birth of their child. The attack itself however is written in some detail and made for a very sad read; you know there were going to be casualties but I didn’t expect some of them, which made it even sadder. The tone of the story really shifts, I think, after the bombing, and reading about the consequences of the attack on the characters was just heartbreaking to read.
I found the story became rather disjointed in the aftermath of the attack; I thought the attack itself was the culmination of the novel but there’s quite a bit of story afterwards, which made me wonder exactly whose story are we truly following. Additionally, new characters and perspectives are introduced, such as Annie Bingham, but at this point of the novel I didn’t really care for the new characters because I was so invested with the characters I had been following since the beginning. There’s a bit more activity at the end as well, but it was a little harder to keep focus for me at this point because I wasn’t sure where the story was ultimately going.
Guernica overall was a very interesting novel looking at life andthe experiences of those living in this ancient town before and after the bombing. The author brought this town and its inhabitants to life and its representation of Basque culture and language is evident in every page. I felt the story lagged considerably towards the end but nonetheless it was an engrossing historical fiction title. Readers of historical fiction and novels set in Spain may want to check it out.