A family and a village in a time of war

2008-12-03 00:00

This novel is an affectionate portrait of a family and community in the village of Guernica in the Basque area of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Larger-than-life Justo Ansotegui and his wife Mariangeles have created a family-centred home that is rooted in their community and built on a foundation of hard work, decency and love — values that they maintain despite the hardships of country life.

The novel portrays the family over three generations but this story is shadowed by the reader’s knowledge of Guernica’s impending devastation. That the book opens with a prologue subtitled “Guernica, 1939” heightens this sense of awful anticipation.

Boling does not unpack the complexities of the Spanish Civil War but the economic distress and the persecution of the Basques is apparent in the lives of Justo, his family and neighbours. The oppression culminates in the relentless bombing of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe in April 1937 in what was essentially a weapons-testing exercise prior to the outbreak of World War 2.

Although a work of fiction, some historical characters do feature in the novel, such as Wolfram von Richthofen, who led the bombing raid on Guernica; José Antonio Aguirre, president of the Basques; and Pablo Picasso, whose painting Guernica was first shown at the Paris International Exhibition in July 1937.

The bombing of Guernica is the pivotal event of the book, but the story of the survivors’ resilience and resistance — both personal and political —continues to hold the reader’s attention.

The quality of Boling’s writing is patchy but it is a considerable achievement that the book is accessible even to those with scant knowledge of the period. Stories of war are usually about soldiers or politicians, but Boling sympathetically records how war destroys the lives of ordinary civilians.

Carol Brammage

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