Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Guernica by Dave Boling - 384 pgs

Book CoverGuernica is an epic story of love, destruction and survival set amid the Spanish Civil War. It is the story of two families and three generations intertwined by love, honor and duty. It is the story of Justo Ansotegui, the strongest and most virile man in the village of Guernica. Justo rises from a young hardscrabble existence raising his brothers after the disappearance of his father, becoming a ranch owner and father in his early teens. After a touching courtship and wedding to the beautiful Mariangeles, Justo becomes the father of the spirited and vivacious Miren. Rolling through the years, we are privy to the love and devotion of Justo's family towards each other and their community, including the life and sacrifices of Justo's younger brother, Xabier, a man of the cloth. Here also are the Navarro brothers, both fishermen, who will leave their home to become very different, yet equally honorable men. As Francisco Franco, with assistance from the Germans, begins his takeover of Guernica with the intent of abolishing the Basque people and culture, life in the town become fraught with scarcity, fear and rumors. Each of the people we come to meet must adapt to a life filled with hardships among the menacing influences taking over their town. When the unthinkable happens and the German Luftwaffe bombs the town, life is forever changed and the survivors of the brutal attack must learn to endure and rebuild, gaining strength and shedding their weaknesses with only the help of one another. Peppered within this tale we get a glimpse of the famous painter Picasso and his artistic reaction to the bombing of Guernica, as well as the haunting account of commanding officer Wolfram von Richthofen, one of the men directly responsible for the bombing. Mixing the fictional with the tangible, Guernica tells the tragic story of one of the most terrible events in history, taking the reader on a moving ride of loss and redemption.

This book really started off with a bang. Reading the first section, I found myself curious at the plight of Justo, and wondering what led him to the place he inhabited in the opening of this story. I enjoyed the detail of the family interactions and the concise yet revealing way that the author wove so much of the history of the town and its inhabitants within the story.The many viewpoints and distinct characters made the plot very involving. Some of the best sections in the book were the reflections and reactions involving Xabier, the town's priest and Justo's brother. From his viewpoint I was able to really envision the carnage inflicted on that terrible day and see the heartrending atrocity that was inflicted upon those unfortunate townspeople. The drama of the aftermath wasn't harped upon or made morbid; instead it was explained with subtlety and a depth of feeling that made the characters and their reactions very plausible and human. Though I thought this was a tale well told, the stories told from the perspectives of Picasso and von Richthofen were a bit jarring and not well integrated. I believe that the author had something important to say with the inclusion of these passages, but the voice and message was somewhat dampened by the almost mechanical embedding of these elements. I think it is always hard to add real historical figures into a work that is primarily fiction and have them blend in seamlessly. In this case, I didn't feel that it was very successful. Adding to this, the lack of information regarding the politics of the bombing of Guernica left me with many unanswered questions, and it hampered my understanding of the event. I felt that a little more exposition on the causes and strategies of the war that precluded the bombing would have been helpful to understand the full impact of what happened in the town. For this reason, I felt that the sections regarding the family were more connecting and emotionally charged, while the other parts of the book were a bit less interesting to read.

Although there were components of this story that didn't really work for me, overall I was very moved by this book and thought it was a success. The author mentions in an afterword that the politics had been deliberately left out in order to give the reader an idea of how this bombing would have appeared to the townspeople, who had no idea of why it happened. Looking at it in that framework, this becomes a story of a town and a story of individuals dealing with the unthinkable and the unexpected. As a reader though, I wanted more. I really wanted to understand why this happened and to see the play unfold behind the curtain. But ultimately, I did care for the characters and wonder in what direction in life they were heading, and how they would get there. I got so involved with them, that in the end, I could overlook the difficulties I had with the story, and value my time with them.


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