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Javier Cercas On 'Lord Of All The Dead'


Can a good man give his life for an evil cause? The Spanish Civil War pitted the left-leaning government against a revolt of right-wing nationalists led by General Francisco Franco. They were aligned with fascists and supported by Nazi Germany. The Spanish Civil War is often called the opening round of the Second World War. Javier Cercas, the Spanish novelist and columnist, has written what he calls a nonfiction novel about his great-uncle, Manuel Menas (ph), who fought for the fascist Franco and died what was called a hero's death at the age of 19. His book - "Lord Of All The Dead." Javier Cercas joins us from Barcelona. And thank you so much for being with us.

JAVIER CERCAS: Thank you very much.

SIMON: What did you hear about your uncle when you were growing up in the 1960s and '70s?

CERCAS: Oh, my mother was 5 years old when the war began and 7 when this boy died. And for her, Manuel Menas was the perfect hero, you know, was the man who went to the war to save the family, to save religion, to save the homeland. And his death was a total tragedy. So for me, Manuel Menas became the symbol of the fact that my family had been Francoist and in this sense was a shame. I didn't know what to do with that, you know? It was a burden for me.

SIMON: Can you help us as Americans understand what a incendiary heritage the Spanish Civil War is in modern-day Spain?

CERCAS: History books say that the Spanish Civil War, as you said, is the first act of the Second World War. It's true. But one difference is that in Spain, the bad guys won. Franco was not exactly a fascist who was a dictator, but he was supported by fascists. And this past - the violent past of a terrible dictatorship lasted till the '70s. So it's really close to us, and we must deal with it.

SIMON: Your uncle was 17 when he joined the Army. He became a second lieutenant with the Ifni Rifleman. I made note of some of the words that people who say they knew your uncle used to describe him - cheerful, industrious, intellectually curious, scholarly. Why would someone so many people considered an admirable young man devote his life, wind up giving his life for an unjust cause?

CERCAS: I mean, we novelists - what we do is to formulate complex questions in the most complex possible way. We don't answer them. In fact, the answer is the question itself or the quest for an answer, right? But one answer to that question is that fascism - we have forgotten that - was very attractive. In the '30s, it was fashion. We think now that fascism was something - you know, that fascists went with horns or something like that in the street. But it's not true. It presented itself as anti-capitalist. It was young. It was different. It was a sort of alternative to old democracy. And this boy - 17 years old when he went to the war, 19 years old when he died in combat. He was convinced that that was the solution, right? I mean, the best people can do worst - the worst things.

SIMON: What - why a nonfiction novel?

CERCAS: Why not nonfictional? That's my answer.

SIMON: (Laughter) Well, you're a novelist, but you also write a newspaper column. I mean...

CERCAS: Yeah. I mean, in this book and as in other books, I write a story immaculately factual. But my instruments are the instruments of a novelist. And I think that with these instruments, we can arrive to a deeper truth than only with the instruments of journalism or of history. In fact, novels can digest history, philosophy, essay, everything. It's a genre of genres, and this is probably its main virtue.

SIMON: You've said that you fear that Spain - and not just Spain but the world - are now experiencing a revival of nationalist populism. And you fear that. Where do you see this?

CERCAS: Oh, for me, this is obvious. I mean, history doesn't repeat itself, exactly. But it repeats itself with different masks. Lots of the things that let Manuel Menas to the war are working today. People believe in charismatic leaders. Nationalism, which was the essence of fascism, is back in Europe, in the States. People believe in easy solutions for complex problems, et cetera, et cetera. And for me, it's obvious that we are repeating lots of the mistakes we did in the '30s, and we are repeating them because we have forgotten history.

SIMON: Mr. Cercas, if you go back far enough, does any family have clean hands?

CERCAS: Absolutely not. We'll have a good heritage and a bad heritage. All countries have problems with their past. All families have problems with their pasts. All persons have problems with their past. We are our heritage. I am my ancestors. I am my family. And that's why I must know this heritage because, if not, we are in danger to do the same things, right?

SIMON: Javier Cercas. His nonfiction novel, translated by Anne McLean, is "Lord Of All The Dead." Thank you so much for being with us.

CERCAS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.