Translated by Anne Mclean
Review by Michael Eaude
Javier Cercas rose to literary fame two decades ago with Soldiers of Salamis (2001), a novel structured as an investigation into an incident when a Republican soldier in the 1936-39 Civil War refuses to shoot a notorious fascist he finds hiding in the forest. Very noble! But was the Republican soldier right not to obey orders? The notorious fascist escapes and after the Civil War becomes a Minister in the dictator Franco’s government, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. This is the sort of moral conundrum that is the hallmark of Cercas’ books and that he poses in the latest novel of his to be translated, Even the Darkest Night, also an investigation.
Cercas, born in 1962, is author of about 15 books, among them eight good novels, three of which are exceptional: Soldiers of Salamis, The Speed of Light (2005) on the effects of the Vietnam war on a U.S. soldier’s mental health, and Outlaws (2012), about a middle-class kid who becomes involved with teenage working-class delinquents in the Catalan city of Girona.
Several of Cercas’ novels revolve around the Civil War. His recent Lord of All Dead (2017) is a non-fiction book that investigates a great-uncle of his, a Falangist who fought with Franco. This ordinary kid from a small town in Extremadura died aged 19 in the Battle of the Ebre, the decisive battle of the Civil War that was fought in Southern Catalonia. Cercas, himself a committed anti-Francoist, explains the background of his young relative, a Falangist volunteer in Franco’s ranks, and by explaining seeks to understand him. Cercas does not believe in simple, cardboard cut-out heroes or villains.
Even the Darkest Night is structured as a conventional crime novel. It opens with cruel torture and murders. Its protagonist Melchor Marín, through whose eyes the story is told, is a troubled cop. Taciturn, obsessive, he is a classic outsider detective, fiercely committed to justice even when this clashes with the law or the decisions of his police superiors.
Even the Darkest Night includes contemporary events such as the August 2017 terror killings on Barcelona’s Rambles and reaches back to the Civil War. Paco Adell, one of the victims of the murder with which the novel opens, had started off in the 1960s as a scrap metal dealer, selling shrapnel collected from the 1938 Battle of the Ebre. Hard work and ruthless ambition made him the wealthiest man in Terra Alta, the mountainous inland county around Gandesa and Corbera, in southern Catalonia. Indeed, Terra Alta is the book’s title in its original Spanish. When you drive through these hills today, the towns look prosperous. The cafés are full, graceful trees shade the tiled pavements, the flat-fronted houses are serene. The country roads are lined with vines, olives and almond trees. Cercas, though, knows it better. The novelist looks beyond pretty facades and finds that this backwater is an “abrupt, barren, inhospitable, wild and isolated” land. Prosperity exists only for the few and particularly the Adells, the richest family in the county.
Melchor, sent to the Terra Alta from the city to escape publicity following his heroic actions during the terror incidents of August 2017, finds peace, love and a home in this backwater. When he reaches his new posting in Gandesa, his boss Sergeant Blai tells him: “Nothing ever happens here”. Nothing has ever happened, it appears, in the 80 years since the Battle of the Ebre, “the bloodiest battle in the history of Spain,” which is the main theme of old men’s circular tavern conversations. “Here, sooner or later, everything gets explained by the war”, Olga, the local woman he marries, tells him.
Cercas is a daring writer. This novel is no exception. Take his protagonist, Melchor, whose back-story is barely believable. He never knew his father; his mother worked as a prostitute to pay for his education; one night, she was murdered; as a teenager he went to jail for being a dealer and gunman for a Colombian drug cartel. There he met two guardian angels: Vivales, the lawyer who supports him through thick and thin, and the prison librarian, Guille the Frenchman, who introduces him to books and turns him into a voracious reader. Melchor studies and the orphan criminal passes his exams and becomes a cop.
The first book that Guille gets him to read is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Melchor identifies with both Jean Valjean, the poor man condemned to the galleys for stealing a loaf, with whom all readers identify, AND his arch-enemy the cop Javert, so set in his obedience to the letter of the law that he loses sight of justice. Cercas has created Melchor like a character in Les Miserables, a legendary figure, obsessive like Javert and transformed, like Valjean. I have said that Cercas is a daring writer. This is seen in Guille, Vivales and Melchor, who are all unlikely, larger-than-life characters and thus risky to write about without seeming ridiculous. Cercas brings it off. The mythical aspect of Melchor, a man of terrible suffering and stern morality, makes that back-story believable.
Melchor, this character from another age, is not an easy person. He has no small talk and speaks only when he has to. Often he looks out of the window (at that Terra Alta landscape) while thinking of an answer. He expresses little emotion, except with Olga and their daughter. Melchor is not a violent man, but has learnt to use violence against the ruthless (terrorists) and the cruel (men who hit women).
For Cercas Even the Darkest Night is a new departure into the crime novel. He is still, though, talking of the same moral complexities: the Civil War, the dilemma of what a just action is and different people’s different truths. He portrays many characters, all seen through Melchor’s eyes, and Melchor is as sharp and observant as his creator. Cercas has a great sense of place and moves impeccably back and forth in time. Even the Darkest Night is both a fine, fast-moving, entertaining crime novel and a novel that urges its readers to think.
Pluto Press will publish Michael Eaude’s A People’s History of Catalonia in September.
Javier Cercas, Even the Darkest Night (Maclehose Press, 2022). 978-1529410006, 352pp., hardback.
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