How do we give voice to the individual stories behind a cataclysmic event that transformed our understanding of humanity’s capacity for violence and yet is better remembered for its contribution to the rather more sanitised world of international art? That’s the question behind the debut novel Guernica, by the US sports writer Dave Boling, published in 2008. Boling writes on his website: ‘As the world grew increasingly familiar with acts of terrorism against defenseless civilians, I was struck how the 1937 bombing of the historic town of Guernica had gone unrecognized as an early moment in the history of such attacks. It seemed that people in America were more aware of Picasso’s famed mural than the atrocity that spawned the painting. By fictionalizing the event, I hoped to elevate awareness of the tragedy, and also to create characters who were good and noble people coping with traumatic circumstances in inspirational ways.’ The novel has been hugely acclaimed in the US and the UK, and was chosen as one of Richard and Judy’s top summer reads for 2009.
Guernica traces the interwoven stories of the inhabitants of Guernica (focusing on one family in particular), the German commander von Richthofen, and Picasso, thus giving us a range of perspectives not only on the attacks themselves, but also on the way they were first planned, and later memorialized. I read it over two days, in a strange ‘pre-print’ edition that had somehow found its way into Formby Library. If I hadn’t had other things I was supposed to be doing – you know, like working and sleeping – I would have read it straight through in one sitting. It’s absolutely gripping, and even more so because you know all the way through what is coming, so that even the smallest acts in the first half of the novel, which is a touching and often humorous depiction of life in a small town, take on a symbolic or memorializing status. When I eventually forced myself to put the book down for the night, it was with a stone in the pit of my stomach, and an overwhelming sense of foreboding for the characters who are so well -drawn, I didn’t want to imagine what the next day would bring for any of them.
Boling’s interest in the story of Guernica came about through his wife’s family, Basques who had emigrated to the US. The stories in Guernica are largely their stories, and those of the people they knew, loved and lost. Very much like that other powerful, recuperative novel Dulce Chacón‘s La voz dormida / The Sleeping Voice (2002), Boling’s novel is spun out of the fragile personal memories he has carefully gathered from people still living with them seventy years later. Both novels, too, can be read as a celebration of the power of material artefacts to hold stories that cannot be freely told (Hortensia’s notebook and pencil in Voz, Miguel’s woodcarvings in Guernica). I recommend Guernica wholeheartedly, and am trying to find out whether it is going to be translated into Spanish any time soon …
AFTERTHOUGHT: the covers of the three editions so far are quite telling, aren’t they? The US edition shows a flaming orange sky over bucolic green hills -the bombing a scar on the natural world? The original UK edition (the first of the three on this page), which is the one I read, is clearly modelled on Picasso’s painting, which is quite a clever idea – Picasso’s post-bombing world is black and white, static, iconic scenes of horror, whereas the pre-bombing world is in colour, with dancing, and a scene of courtship, full of future promise. The first time I saw it, though, that wasn’t what immediately occurred to me – instead, I thought it was primitivist, and wondered about that as a strategy for ‘selling’ a Basque story to an Anglophone readership (probably says more about my lack of artistic awareness than anything else…). The later UK edition, which is the middle of the three on this page, goes for a very different tone – the building, the tree, the woman on the balcony all look very sophisticated, rather like those arty black and white shots of Paris balconies you used to be able to buy from Athena. I can see, I think, what they were trying to do with the building, and the hint of the famous “Guernica tree” is very clever, but the figure of the woman is slightly unsettling and mysterious in the wrong kind of way.