There are no simple answers, and near the end, in a moving episode when Cercas and his mother visit the derelict stately home that served as a military hospital where his uncle died of his wounds, Cercas remembers that as well as The Iliad, there is the later Achilles of The Odyssey, who appears as a shade regretting his kalos thanatos: “I would rather toil as the slave of a penniless, landless labourer, than reign here as lord of all the dead.” It is a beautifully achieved moment, all the more so because even at this point Cercas realises there are certain truths that he must hold back to protect the living.
Perhaps because we have not had to face such a terrible national moral trauma, there is no one writing in English like this: engaged humanity achieving a hard-won wisdom. It is powerful stuff.
Cercas is surely right when he says, in interviews, that we can only understand the re-emergence of fascism if we empathise with how decent men like Manuel were sucked into it in the 1930s. But his ability to express such a noble aim is hobbled by the limitations of his auto-fictional methods, giving us history that is never quite proper history, and fiction that, in the end, isn’t really fiction either.
As in his earlier novel, Cercas is a slippery narrator, shifting in and out of the story, sometimes taking an overview with a documentary, almost forensic tone, at other times assuming the first person role of ‘Javier Cercas’ researching his family’s past — then pulling the rug from this conceit with post-modernist glee... In search of the dead man, Cercas resurrects the past, drawing on records and personal testimony, at times guilty of information overload: details of battles won and lost weigh down some pages. But when it focuses on people, the book takes flight. It can be moving, unexpectedly funny, racy, demotic or deadpan.