An extraordinary epic of love, family and war set in the Basque town of Guernica before, during, and after its destruction by the German Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War.
Calling to mind such timeless war-and-love classics as Corelli’s Mandolin and The English Patient, Guernica is a transporting novel that thrums with the power of storytelling and is peopled with characters driven by grit and heart.
In 1935, Miguel Navarro finds himself in conflict with the Spanish Civil Guard, and flees the Basque fishing village of Lekeitio to make a new start in Guernica, the center of Basque culture and tradition. In the midst of this isolated bastion of democratic values, Miguel finds more than a new life— he finds someone to live for. Miren Ansotegui is a charismatic and graceful dancer who has her pick of the bachelors in Guernica, but focuses only on the charming and mysterious Miguel. The two discover a love that war and tragedy can not destroy.
History and fiction merge seamlessly in this beautiful novel about the resilience of family, love, and tradition in the face of hardship. The bombing of Guernica was a devastating experiment in total warfare by the German Luftwaffe in the run-up to World War II. For Basques, it was an attack on the soul of their ancient nation; for the world, it was an unprecedented crime against humanity. In his first novel, Boling reintroduces the event and paints his own picture of a people so strong, vibrant, and proud that they are willing to do whatever it takes to protect their values, their country, and their loved ones.
WHY I PICKED THIS BOOK TO READ: I had originally picked this book up because I had to write a Spanish History term paper last year (which was to pick a book–fiction, nonfiction, travelogues, etc–and a movie that focus on one issue related to the history of Iberia/Spain, and then evaluate how the two sources portray the issue). I picked the bombing of Guernica as the topic of my paper because it fascinated me. For a town that didn’t necessarily pose as a threat to Franco and his allies, the bombing had a significant impact on Basque and Spain society. With the basic idea of the bombing, I picked up Guernica to try to find out the steps that led to the bombing and figure out the reason behind it as well as its significance to the Spanish Civil War.
I was extremely disappointed with this book.
I expected the book to provide details of the the steps that led to the bombing of Guernica, using a fictional family living through that time. However, such information (of the political and social situation of the Basque area of Spain) are sparse. One of the characters, Jose Antonio Aguirre (an actual historical figure who became the future Basque president), says that he’s “not sure [he] even understand everything that’s happening [in Spain]. Either [they] don’t get the news or it’s been twisted in the telling,” which is exactly how I felt, reading the book.
The pacing of the book is very fast. The problem stems from the book trying to cover over 50 years of the Anstoegui’s family history in Guernica. Each moment (with the exception of the actual bombing of Guernica) are an overload of information that’s thrown rapidly at the reader. It makes me question why Boling chose to summarize certain moments instead of slowing it down. I want to see the moments that actually took place in Guernica’s history, but the book summarizes it, not dwelling on its significance. For instance, whenever Jose Antonio Aguirre spoke to Father Xabier about what had been going on throughout Spain, the narrative would say “they talked about the labor problems, social issues, church stance, etc,” but nothing is revealed about those problems and those issues that surely impacted life there. I was left clueless; I didn’t like that.
Within the novel, there are historical figures woven into the text like Picasso and Franco, but often times, a name I didn’t know like Manfred and Wolfram von Richthofen or Jose Antonio Aguirre would be introduced, and I would find myself questioning who they are. I know that these individuals were important but I don’t know why. As a reader, I hate to stop reading and google the names. Also, a name would be dropped into the narrative (like Alejandro Goicoechea), but Boling never explains who they are exactly and their significance to be mentioned. I wonder to myself whether the person is an actual historical figure or whether Boling created the character just because. I would think that you don’t mention a person’s name unless you will return back to describe the person and their importance to the story.
The fictional characters Boling created were one-dimensional. I didn’t feel like I connected with the characters, and I think a large part of that is because there are sooo many characters. I know why Boling would want multiple characters; it shows how different generation of Basque people (also people from other countries) are impacted by the bombing of Guernica. However, having multiple characters makes the book cluttered. I’m the type of reader who can’t keep track of who is who when there is more than six characters. When I was reading the book, I found myself focusing only on Justo’s family’s story and Xabier’s (where bits of history are revealed). I think that certain characters like Picasso and the British pilots should’ve been taken out of the story because they add nothing to the greater story of the bombing of Guernica. Plus, it doesn’t help that the story told us instead of described to us what happened (ie. Picasso did this, Picasso did that, Picasso felt like this). I couldn’t understood the characters’s situation (at least not from how it was portrayed).
Boling’s author’s note says that he refrained from elaborating on the complex politics in Spain due to the shifting alliances, parties, and people, and that the novel was to set up the conditions the Basque people would have faces (like poverty, oppression, instability, and disenchantment). But those complex politics have a big impact on the Basque people. Without it, I couldn’t understand what they faced since I had no idea what was actually going on through Spain to impact the Basque region. I only got bits of pieces of the situation.
What I did like about the book is the recreation of the bombing of Guernica. When I read that section, my attention was completely entranced by the images of people fleeing or hiding in doorways, the heat that pulsed through the air, the little bit of condensation from the walls, broken glass and mangled bodies. I think that was the strongest section.
If you want a book that describes the Guernica bombing (from the political/social situation), then this may not be the book to read to gain that information. However, if you’re reading this book to be entertained as well as get a bit of basic history of the bombing of Guernica, perhaps this is the book for you.