Monday, September 15, 2008

Guernica: This Is Not For Whom the Bell Tolls


Provided free from Amazon Vine
Most readers today, if they know it at all, would associate Guernica with the painting by Pablo Picasso and not the bombings of the Basque town that inspired him and became a metaphor for the worst horrors of war. I, on the other hand, was fascinated by the Spanish Civil War back in high school (nearly 40 years ago), prompted not a little by my grandfather, the immigrant activist who had supported the Loyalists, even though too old at the time to volunteer to fight for them. So when I saw this title I jumped at it.

An author writing about the Spanish Civil War in the 21st century faces three major challenges. One is the inevitable comparisons to Ernest Hemingway's, For Whom the Bell Tolls, the great American novel about the era. Another is a lack of the historical knowledge necessary to make the story resonate. Third is that the history of the various factions who made up the Loyalists on the one side and the Fascists on the other is difficult enough to explain in a history book let alone a novel. Unfortunately, while not bad, Guernica manages to come up short in these three areas.

Dave Boling made a conscious decision, as noted in his "Author's Notes," to not explain the history at all. This makes for a strange novel, indeed, even for me who had a general idea what was going on. One minute all seems well in the Basque country, with only one character showing any concerns for the growing strength of the Fascist rebels; the next minute brothers Dodo and Miguel Navarro are accosted by the Guardia Civile and forced into exile. For most of the novel, the people of Guernica happily go about their lives, then, suddenly, we learn that food is scarce and they are nearly starving, with no real explanation of what was happening around them to make this occur. Guernica also fills with soldiers and refugees. From where and why? If the lack of background made little sense to me, I can imagine what it would be like for readers with no knowledge at all of the times.

The high point of the novel is Boling's description of the bombings of this civilian population with no warning–-a precursor to the ubiquitous civilian bombings of WWII. The horror is almost as palpable as in the Picasso painting and I found myself unable to put the book aside at that point, wondering which of the characters would survive and which would not. But the grief and pain recede too quickly to feel realistic.

Strangely, in an odd disconnect to the theme, this is more of a "happy" story with everyone in Guernica singing and dancing and eating right up the the holocaust, followed by a quick recovery, even by those who lost most of their loved ones. Given that Basques separatists remain a force in Spain even today, long after the death of Franco and Fascism, it seems odd that the author would portray the wounds as healing so quickly. Yet, in the end, everything is tied up neatly, in an almost Dickensian style.

Needless to say, this is no For Whom the Bell Tolls, though it has its moments. All in all, it lacked the depth to make me care, no matter how much I tried.

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