I didn’t know very much about what happened to Guernica before reading this book but it was a good excuse to find out more and very timely too, given several politicians and commentators have drawn parallels with what’s currently happening in Aleppo. The author’s end note also puts the events into an ongoing context: “Historians have disputed the death toll from the bombing of Guernica, by the act nonetheless remains at the taproot of the assaults against civilian populations that the world still grieves on an all too regular basis.”
He also notes that he deliberately chose to focus his novel less on the political background and more on the “poverty, oppression, instability, and disenfranchisement that common citizens would have felt.” He does so very effectively, despite the first half of the book being relentlessly positive and upbeat. As we meet the key characters and watch their lives unfold, I kept expecting things to go wrong; people to be stood up at the altar, miscarriages, betrayal or accidents. But these are people enjoying the simple things of life, happy with what they have and fully aware of being blessed. That doesn’t mean things are always easy, but they respond to problems with love, openness and a profound trust that things will work themselves out. They share, they talk and they dance.
At the centre of the story is Justo, his brothers Josepe and Xabier, his wife Mariangeles, their daughter, Miren, her best friend, the blind and orphaned Alaia, and two brothers, Dodo and Miguel. Miren has inherited her mother’s good nature and knack of being adored, “for drawing them near, as if initiating them into her own club of the unrelentingly well intended…She always opened a gate to somewhere they each wished to go. And then she listened.” She can dance on the rim of a wine glass, strides so her black plait swings like a pendulum, and rather than inducing envy, reminds people how life looked before it became complicated. Justo is a giant of a man, literally and metaphorically. His physical strength is matched by an inner sense of purpose that’s deployed protecting those whom he loves. When he tells his daughter’s fiancee about a ritual that involves biting off ram’s testicles, we cannot be sure if it’s fact or fiction, but that doesn’t really matter; it has the desired effect. Mariangeles keeps him in check most of the time and has a clarity of vision and sense of objectivity that makes her the ideal mouthpiece for the many of the historical and political facts Boling weaves into his pastoral idyll. The firebrand Dodo also bring this perspective but is more revolutionary than cool observer, perfectly conveying the Basque passion that throbs through the novel.
As I turned each page having my expectations of disaster confounded each time, there was, nonetheless, a sense of impending doom, after all a novel with such a title is not going to avoid tragedy. This sense was heightened by occasional vignettes starring historical figures such as Picasso, Luftwaffe pilot Von Richthofen and Basque president José Antonio Aguirre, and the effect is to underline the separation between the everyday lives being lived out in Guernica and the storm clouds gathering just out of sight. Miren sums it up when she admits “these things happened but not to her, not here” and goes on “she felt that if she could just talk to Franco, sit down with him, she could straighten this all out, She could make him see the importance of stopping the war.” It’s a thought I have most days about men like Assad.
All of which makes the shock when it does arrive all the more profound. Not a book to read in public, if you can help it.
Boyling spans decades in the first half of the book, then we get a section that’s just one day: 26 April 1937. Things slow down as they are wont to do in moments of horror and pain. Every graphic detail is recollected, from the sounds to the smells, to the sensation of being lost in the town you’ve known since birth because it’s unrecognisable. A door cannot be shut because “the lower part of a man’s leg, still wearing a black espadrille” blocks it. People rammed into a shelter lick the walls “trying to suck in condensation to fend off the steaming heat”. The wheels of a pram kick up cockerels’ tails of dark fluid.
Then comes the aftermath. Von Richthofen reflects on the bombing and judges it “a genesis moment” and “Effective. Modern. The new war.” Xabier is asked how many people died and replies “When you see a group of boys fused into a blackened mess, you don’t take an inventory. How many died? How many? Death was infinite.”The undead seeking family members, the grieving, the anger and the revenge. Whether that’s taking the lives of those responsible, saving lives, or just stubbornly continuing to live your own. The children shipped to England for “rest, contentment and – more important still – peace”. Welcomed with open arms and nobody demanding dental checks to verify their age. And the painting, seen and admired around the world, and about which Picasso remarks, when asked by a German soldier “You did this, didn’t you”, “No. You did”. The steady, difficult tasks of rebuilding your home and your life, when everything has changed so dramatically and everywhere is haunted by those you have lost.
A sensual book of every day miracles, GUERNICA is far from perfect – it’s naive at times, suffers from a lack of political analysis and too many easy cliches – but there’s something about it that touched me deeply. Perhaps because, more than anything, it’s a reminder of what living a good life means; that love endures; that sometimes happiness is all the more sweet for the despair that precedes it. A reminder that “if you lose someone you love, you need to redistribute your feelings rather than surrender them. You give them to whoever is left, and the rest you turn towards something that will keep you moving forward”. And that, despite the weight of history, we still have much to learn as a human race about how to avoid the horrors of war.