Lord of All the Dead

Knopf. Jan. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9780525520900. $26.95. HIST
Ever since he was a child, relatives of Cercas (Spanish literature, Univ. of Girona) extolled the virtues of his great-uncle Manuel Mena, killed fighting for Francisco Franco in the battle of the Ebro in 1938. Cercas has published a novel, Soldiers of Salamis, and two nonfiction narratives about 20th century Spain, including The Impostor, but resisted writing about his great-uncle. Eventually curiosity changed his mind. Mena was only 19 when he died. Who had he been? An embarrassment or an idealist who simply made the wrong choice in a muddled conflict? Mena left little behind in the way of explanation, and documentation was scarce. Cercas pieces together the story from records and interviews, filling in gaps with tentatively offered speculation. The result is a book as much about Spain’s troubled history as its subject, a promising young man who never had the chance to find out who he was or what he stood for.
VERDICT This unusual offering is an effort to heal as much as it is a way to trace an uncertain history, and will appeal to readers seeking more background on Spain and others who admire good writing.

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