In 1992 I spent one day in Madrid. Unfortunately I had a high fever, so I don’t remember much. I do recall though that the only thing I managed to do was visiting the Prado, where amongst and against many Spanish classics I saw Picasso’s Guernica. The most vivid part of my impression was how immense this piece was. Overwhelming not just in its brutality but in its size too.
Fast forward 12 years in my life: In a college history class we spent about 5 minutes learning about the 1937 bombing of Guernica. I don’t think the word “Basque” was mentioned, but “bombing”, “first”, “systematic” and “devastation”, were definitely part of the vocabulary used then. These were the basis of my minimal knowledge about what happened in this basque town in 1937, when I started to read Dave Boling’s novel of the same title. Now I have a wider knowledge about the topic and I can recommend the book for anybody wants to know more.
My recommendation stands despite that the main characters were fictional or at best composites of basque types. But all the historic players were real, and the events described happened the way they were, as far as I can tell. The civil war, the people smuggling, the German bombing, the military alliances, the Catholic church’s role… these were part of the historic tapestry.
In the main story line we meet people, who we learn to love for their characters and overall goodness. I read in interview with the author that creating it was intentional: he wanted to create heroes like Atticus in “To kill a mockingbird.” As you knew from the beginning that the book’s central event is the bombing, you had to know that some or most of these people would be killed off. Thus you could invest their attachments into them only with trepidation, waiting for whom the author would kill off in the inhumane bombing. If you read the book you get your answer.
A not about the horror of the systematic bombing itself. I’ve never been to a war so I can’t tell how it feels. I do know that lots of movies depicting fights are using various techniques to share the participants hypnagogic state, where the edges of reality are getting blurred. The book did something similar, although it was describing the damage to the people and the buildings. But the survivors all seemed to be shocked to different reality. That is also the essence of Picasso’s painting, of which we learn the background of in the book.
I read this book for a book club. At the discussion there were several elders present, including a lady who worked at a collage at the time and another one who was in grade school. The former recalled her and her colleague’s support for the Lincoln brigade and the latter recalled collecting the alufoil from cigarette boxes that would be turned into bullets to be used in Spain. Another gentleman pointed out that the book didn’t mention the Lincoln brigade, or any other international help, only how the Italians and the Germans supported Franco. On the other hand this gentleman and his wife, who were young Jewish teens in Germany at the time, were probed how Germany reacted about the Spanish civil war, what was their reactions at the time. The explained that in public there was no criticism of any type, only the official news were supposed to be known. But in the confines of their own walls they knew what was happening. I appreciated that I could sit with these people for whom Guernica was not just history of the distant past, but had personal memories related to it. Made the book more alive for me.