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Review of 'Soldiers of Salamis', Javier Cercas, Bloomsbury £14.99

In January 1939, just before the end of the Spanish Civil War, 50 top-level prisoners, among them priests, fifth columnists and Falangists, are marched in the rain to a clearing in the forest near the French border and machine-gunned. In the chaos one of them escapes. He crouches shivering in the bushes. Suddenly, he hears a branch crack. A young Republican soldier is pointing a rifle at him. Another Republican shouts, 'Found anyone?' The soldier stares at the fugitive, then calls back, 'No one here.'

This noble gesture is complicated by the fact that the fugitive is Rafael Sánchez Mazas, a notorious fascist. Disciple of Mussolini and co-founder of the Spanish Falange, Sánchez Mazas had spent the previous decade writing bloodthirsty articles to foment murder and military uprising.

Javier Cercas portrays extremely well the aspirations of the rich art-loving intellectuals who formed the Falange around José Antonio, their handsome leader. They might have persuaded themselves they were leading a national-socialist revolution that would revive an impoverished country. In fact they were defending the old Spain of privilege and poverty, threatened by the masses entering politics after the 1931 expulsion of the monarchy.

Cercas's novel is devoted to an investigation into the sparing of Sánchez Mazas's life - an enquiry into heroism and cowardice, the importance and frailty of memory, and the nature of the civil war. The book is divided into three parts. The first details Sánchez Mazas's wanderings in the forest and how he is helped by local Republicans, some of them deserters from a disintegrating army. The second explains his career - how he later became a minister of Franco, a well known writer and a millionaire sceptic who never abandoned his fascist beliefs.

The third part veers into the narrator's meeting with the Spanish exile Miralles in an old people's home in France. Miralles had fought through the civil war and the Second World War - nine years of war against fascism - and was possibly the soldier who spared Sánchez Mazas in the forest. In this third section, the book rises above the ordinary to heights of beauty and intensity. Through Miralles, Cercas pays tribute to the thousands of forgotten fighters against fascism.

Without self pity, Miralles names all his long-dead young comrades: 'No one remembers them. No one. No one remembers even why they died, why they had no women or children, no sunlit rooms... I remember them every day.' The novel's narrator is forced by Miralles to look away from Sánchez Mazas, and to see the young peasants and workers who took up arms to make a better world.

This narrator is a struggling young writer in prosperous contemporary Girona. His working class girlfriend poses awkward questions - why write about fascist scum and not about someone noble like Lorca? Cercas's device of not writing a straightforward historical account, but also describing the narrator's own investigation into the story, succeeds in linking today's world with the past.

A huge bestseller in Spain, the novel has been criticised by some on the left for serving up a light version of the civil war. It is true Cercas explains little about mass struggle or revolution, but the criticism is off-centre. Cercas forces the reader to follow the narrator in focusing on the struggle of history's footsoldiers, represented in Miralles, who towers above everyone else in the novel in his dignity and moral stature.

In the last two years Soldiers of Salamis has helped break through the curtain of fear inhibiting discussion of the civil war. A well known radio journalist appealed for stories from people who suffered during the civil war. His programme was overwhelmed by elderly people phoning in. A book of their testimonies was then published, challenging implicitly the official view that the civil war was a terrible thing with atrocities on both sides which should be buried and forgotten. Women in their eighties stepped forward with a dignity equal to that of the fictional Miralles to indicate where their parents, kin or husbands had been buried by their fascist executioners in unmarked mass graves. The women had not been able to speak out before because the same people who ruled these women's villages before Franco's death continued to rule after it.

The success of Cercas's excellent novel is part of this movement to lift fear and talk more freely in Spain, and should be welcomed. It is also a moving book that leaves no doubt who the real heroes of the civil war were. As Miralles says, 'If anyone deserved to die it was Sánchez Mazas, wasn't it?'