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The Reign of Spain Mainly Causes Pain
Guernica - Dave Boling
Member Name: SWSt
Guernica - Dave Boling
Date: 22/02/12, updated on 22/02/12 (41 review reads)
Advantages: Epic, gripping account set against the backdrop of a notorious event
Disadvantages: Ending a little too coincidental; some of the real life sub-plots less effective
"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
Summary: An excellent fictionalised account of a bleak event in Spain's past