Soldiers of Salamis is one of those strange novels which blurs fact and fiction, so that the reader is never quite sure what is true and what is not. Such confusion is compounded by the author placing himself in the story as one of the major characters.
The book revolves around an incident that occurred in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War in which a prominent writer and fascist, Rafael Sanchez Mazas, escaped execution by firing squad. While on the run in the forest, Sanchez Mazas stumbles upon a soldier, who should have killed him but decides to turn and walk away instead. Who was this soldier and why did he make this decision?
Some 60 years later, these questions -- and the botched execution -- haunt a Spanish journalist, Javier Cercas, who decides to find out what really happened.
The first part of Soldiers of Salamis tells of Cercas's investigation of the event; the second is the resultant biography of Rafael Sanchez Mazas based on the anecdotal evidence he has acquired; and the third is the journalist's quest to track down the soldier, so that he can ask him why he chose to spare Sanchez Mazas' life that fateful day.
I have to be honest and say that I struggled to really get to grips with this book. I had tried to read it three times previously and, on each occasion, I had not got past the first 30 pages. But I made a special effort this time around, if only because I was determined it would not get the better of me.
There's no doubt that Soldiers of Salamis is an important and original detective novel. It's an interesting, if weighty, read. It's quite droll in places but punctuated by unexpected humour that lightens some of the darker moments.
But as much as I enjoyed the book's themes -- myth, memory, compassion, integrity and what makes a war hero -- I found it too bogged down in detail (it is filled to the brim with historical references), not helped by my scant knowledge of the Spanish Civil War and its major players. The translator's afterword, which illuminates much of the events of that time, is, unfortunately, at the back of the book. (As strange as this might sound, if you chose to read Soldiers of Salamis I would recommend reading the afterword first, particularly if you're not a Spanish Civil War buff.) Similarly, a series of explanatory notes at the back of the book would have been better placed as footnotes dotted throughout the text to aid reader comprehension.
Still, the Soldiers of Salamis, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004, is not so difficult that you cannot gain some enjoyment from it. I found part three particularly exciting and raced through it at speed. It's just a pity that the rest of the book was not as well paced or as entertaining.