Monday, September 15, 2008

a review of "Guernica"

Guernica: A Novel by Dave Boling

If you know the history of the Picasso painting shown above and are aware that it was created to depict the German bombing of the Basque city of Guernica, Spain on April 26, 1937, the climatic event that occurs in the middle of this novel will come as no surprise. The rise of the fascists and the Spanish Civil War and the beginning of World War II is always present in the background of this story. People start to disappear, rumors of terrible happenings in other towns are talked about, neighbors begin to turn on neighbors as times become harder and food is almost impossible to find.

But if that all sounds a little break, don't fear. Because while these things are a part of first time novelist Dave Boling's story "Guernica", this is most certainly not a bleak story. No, this is a love story, from start to finish. At times, a funny, moving and uplifting love story, at times heartbreaking. The love of parents and their children, the love of siblings, the love of spouses, the love of friendship...the love of ones people and ones homeland. Ultimately, a hopeful and promising love story.

At the center of the tale is Justo Ansotegui, the oldest of three siblings, whose mother dies shortly after the birth of his youngest brother. When his father, unable to deal with her death, gradually abandons the boys and the farm they live on, young Justo rise to the occasion to care for them all. He grows to be the strongest man in the region, respected by all and, in time, feared by a few. One brother becomes a fisherman, the other a priest and Justo meets and falls in love and marries the beautiful Mariangeles. They have a daughter, Miren, who is renown for her loveliness and kindness and skill at the traditional Basque dances. When she in turns marries the woodworker Miguel and has a daughter, they form the three generations of the Ansotegui family that will face the horrible events of that April day and it's aftermath.

The story is mainly seems through the experiences of the Ansotegui family, but there are brief appearances by a few historical personages as well, including Picasso, the German commander von Richthofen, who planned in support of Franco, what is said to be the first bombing of an urban civilian target in history at Guernica. Bolings writes in an 'author's note' at the end of this advanced edition that he did not want to "tax the reader with elaborations on the complex and volatile politics at work at the time" but rather "establish a general context of the poverty, oppression, instability, and disenfranchisement that common citizens would have felt".
But perhaps that leads to what I think is one small fault with the book. While he certainly succeeded in his desire to a large degree, I must admit that the whole political situation as it was presented and just who was who and who was doing what in the background story was rather confusing at times. Fascists, freedom fighters...rebels, revolutionaries...hard to keep them all straight unless maybe you have a better understanding of the shifting alliances of the Civil War than I had.

Happily, we have the very strong Justo to hang on to as we are dragged through this turbulant epic and benefit from what he discovers about family and home and love.

Justo learned from Miguel 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 toward something that will keep you moving forward.

Justo, his family and the Basque people moved forward from that savage and atrocious time and we are privileged to accompany them on a small part of the journey.


  1. Nice review, Caite! I've seen the same criticism you made about the history before, and I know what you mean. My husband is reading Guernica right now, and even he has to pull out the encyclopedia every so often--and he's much more of a history buff than I am. On the other hand, if Boling had put too much of the historical background in, it would have turned me off. It's definitely tough to find that perfect balance.

  2. I think it is a delicate balance. I really am not a fan of having to go to wikipedia to read up on a topic as I read a novel. But on the other hand, if I wanted a history text instead of a novel...well, I would read a history text. Hey! It could happen!

    In a way, I just think that a novel should be a self contained reality. What we need to know should all be there.

    But I still loved the book! ;-)

  3. This is in my TBR pile and I can't wait to get to it.


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