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Warm & colourful Basque family sagas
Guernica - Dave Boling
Member Name: chezza99
Guernica - Dave Boling
Date: 04/05/09, updated on 05/05/09 (814 review reads)
Advantages: Uplifting, involving and informative
Disadvantages: American author wearing rose-tinted specs
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,,25340-2647 061,00.html
* Bombing of Guernica (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Guernica
* Basque Country (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basque_Country_(histo rical_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)
Summary: A long and loveable read; would be a great holiday choice