War Crimes

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Reviewed by Frances Itani
Sunday, December 21, 2008


By Dave Boling

Bloomsbury. 367 pp. $26

A sense of menace hangs over the opening of Guernica. We know the "what" of events to come, but not the "how." And it is the "how" of this book that comes alive through Dave Boling's creation of several generations of Basque families in northern Spain during the civil war of the 1930s. As fascism rises in Europe, citizens who once believed themselves to be safe in their own countries are suddenly compelled to flee. Spaniards, including Basque citizens, pour into France from the south. Resistance movements arise. Endangered German and French citizens, often including artists and intellectuals, are smuggled into Spain and then on to Portugal as a departure point toward any country that will accept them.

Miguel Navarro, a young man who has never been comfortable at sea on the family fishing boat, finds himself in danger from the Guardia Civil and must leave his village of Lekeitio. He makes his way to Guernica, the center of Basque culture, and there he meets Miren Ansotegui, a beautiful dancer who is cherished by her prominent family and the people of the town. Thus begins the love story in Guernica, a novel that is, at first glance, about extremes: The women are beautiful, the men brave, family ties unbreakable, and political parties all-powerful. But Boling threads his way through the stories of his many characters with humor, compassion and rich details of Basque tradition.

The literary risks Boling takes include interspersing passages told from the points of view of two historical figures: Picasso and Wolfram von Richthofen of the German Luftwaffe. Lt. Col. von Richthofen commands fliers of experimental bombers; at the invitation of Franco, he tests his bombing tactics in the skies above Guernica on April 26, 1937. A cousin of the Red Baron, von Richthofen is portrayed as cold and efficient. For his efforts, the Führer rewards him with a new Mercedes-Benz roadster. The legacy of Richthofen's methods now exists as a tragic part of Spanish history. As for the Picasso passages, they appear intrusive at first. There is a sense that this is not Picasso's story, at least not yet, though it becomes so in the end.

Overall, the novel is about loss, but also about loss's counterpoints, love and endurance. The description of the bombing of Guernica is so moving, detailed and sad that it becomes almost unbearable. By this point in the story, we're so familiar with the families of the town that we are pulled to the depths of their tragedy and pain. Boling is remarkably able to depict this, grimly and without sentimentality. His understanding of what it is to be deeply traumatized is exactly right, as in this passage about Miguel, days after the bombing of the town:

"To walk through the town carried the risk of having to talk. And he found himself losing the knack. Ventures in public forced him to rise to the surface, while the rest of his time was spent at some subsurface level, lost in thought or dreaming. If he could stay away from people, his days were less complicated. Not easier, because it all felt like wading through a viscous twilight, but less complicated. For long stretches, he wouldn't realize his distance from consciousness until he tried to say something, to the squirrels or to the fish he'd caught, and was surprised by the words coming out in a coughing sound, as if dust and cobwebs had collected in his throat."

Boling skillfully ties in far-reaching but intersecting activities over a broad landscape of warring Europe. Some of the surviving Basque children, many of them babies, are evacuated to Britain. The story moves forward to encompass the years up to 1941, and includes the lives of a young British flier and his wife, who works in an orphanage. And more and more details emerge about Picasso, who creates his own legacy of Guernica for the Spanish pavilion of the 1937 Paris Exposition.

When all these parts come together, we realize that, ultimately, this is a universal story. Through art and the historical record, Guernica is emblazoned in memory, enduring as an expression of individual and collective outrage. ·

Frances Itani's "Remembering the Bones" has been nominated for the 2009 International IMPAC Dublin Award.

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