……….Guernica had been on my “Waiting In The Wings” shelf for quite a few months before I picked it up and started it last week. Other books came in after it and yet were promoted to my hands before I read it, so it was a bit overlooked I guess. I think I overlooked it because I was worried it would be overly “clever” – and I made that irrational conclusion from doing the following very simple maths equation
Dave Boling is Washington journalist (and so very clever) + Picasso was a bit of a genius (and so very clever) = Guernica (book that might be a bit hard for me!)
I couldn’t have been more wrong and so from now on I’ll restrict my maths equation work to helping my daughter with her Maths homework on a Thursday night (or as it frequently is for us ‘In the car on the way to school on a Friday morning’ Maths homework!).
Guernica is a wonderful book. It’s set around the events leading to, during, and then in the aftermath of, the horrific annihilation of the Basque town of Guernica by the Germans in 1937 on behalf of Franco’s Fascists. The events are of course all too real, for this was essentially almost a practice run for the blitzkrieg that the Nazi’s subsequently unleashed across Europe from 1939. The story includes a number of real life characters like Picasso, Von Richthofen, and Aguirre who was the Basque leader at that time within the narrative, but the politics of the Spanish Civil War and abhorrent ideologies of the Fascists at that time are kept to a minimum and instead what Dave Boling tells is a story of ordinary people, their lives on the lead in to the horror that was to befall them. The story is told in the most beautiful, understated and yet incredibly moving prose.
It follows the lives of two groups of families, the Navarro’s and the Ansotegui’s. In particular the story is woven around Justo Ansotegui, his wife Mariangeles, their daughter Miren and Miguel Navarro, who is destined to become integral to all of their lives. The book patiently and gently builds up a picture of these and the other main characters in the novel so that you’re really drawn into the heart of their lives, their relationships and the place in time that Guernica was in the early to mid-1930’s. The pace of the book at this stage is almost leisurely but it fits so well as you get a sense of the leisurely, subtly paced, if hard lives, of the Anotegui’s and the Navarro’s as they make a living from the land, the sea and their wits.
The characters are brilliantly drawn and I found myself warming to every one of them. You can’t help but smile at Justo’s lurid tall stories and his physical demonstrations of his strength while at the same time knowing that it is a strength which will see him powerless when the horror of the Nazi assault begins. Yet still you want to laugh with him, marvel in his feats of physical prowess and yet put a protective arm around his shoulders, because of course as the reader you are privy to the future and you know that a force beyond anything Justo could possibly imagine is lying in wait for him on the horizon of fate.
Alongside Justo is the determination and solidity of Miguel, a wonderful combination of strength and sensitivity, physical brawn and deft craftsmanship, who put me in mind of the wonderful Gabriel Oak in Far From The Madding Crowd. The masculinity and almost alpha-male machismo of Miguel and Justo is beautifully balanced with the grace, poise and smartness of Mariangeles and Miren. While on the surface within the characters the power sits in the physical strength of Miguel and Justo, there’s no doubt that among them, the real power over their lives is the gentle hands of the women. It’s a book with thast kind of feel where the male characters have the ability to move the mountains but they need the female characters to tell them when to start moving it and where they ought to put it! (Isn’t it ever thus perhaps?!)
But of course, hovering over all of them is the power of the evil about to be unleashed by the Nazi war machine on Guernica. It’s cold and callous face is represented by the functional approach of Von Richthofen. It is this overwhelming mix of evil and immorality which gives the Nazi support for Franco its real menace. I found myself caring so much about these characters I almost wanted to scream a warning through the pages, for you care about them partly because of who they are but you care about them partly because you know and understand the enormity of the devastation about to be unleashed upon them and it’s of course on a scale that they couldn’t ever begin to imagine or comprehend. Guernica is in essence the first time history witnesses that kind of total destruction warfare with which it was too become all too familiar in the rest of the 20th century and which it seems to me we still witness without ever really learning the lessons today.
The description of the destruction of Guernica is horrific and gripping and moving and awful and magnificent all at the same time. I won’t detail here the fate of any of the characters or their futures in the aftermath of Guernica, in case you want to read it for yourself as I would thoroughly recommend you to. But I don’t think I’d give too much away in saying that the story projects some hope in the midst of the carnage and loss and that hope lies in the way ordinary people live and love. And so it should be, for at its heart this is a story about people first and events second and even though those events radically change their lives, it is still the story of everyday people that matters most.
Interspersed all the way through the book are snippets from the life of Picasso, which lead to the background to the commissioning of the mural which was in turn to become his magnificent masterpiece “Guernica” about the fate which befell the Basque town. I loved the descriptions of Picasso at work and at love and life. They are short and simple, giving them the same feel as the everyday descriptions of the lives of the characters in Guernica itself.
When the canvas arrived and stretched onto its frame an odd happenstance surprised Picasso. The expansive studio had no problem accommodating the twenty-five foot breadth of canvas, but at nearly twelve feet high it didn’t fit vertically against a wall. Instead, Picasso had to wedge the frame against the rafters at a slight angle and keep it in position with a series of shims he whittled. He worried: would the angle alter the perspective?…..
….With a thin brush and black ink, Picasso outlined the images on the canvas. He used a ladder or a long stick to hold his brushes for the upper reaches. With the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to the elbows, cigarette in his left hand, Picasso crouched deeply to work on the lower reaches. His hair, combed low on the right side to cover his balding crown, kept slipping out of place and falling across his forehead.
It is descriptions like this, reflecting the simplest of physical gestures against the backdrop of the painting and all it represented that gave the writing a real depth and warmth for me.
It also leads to one of the best and most memorable endings (or as it’s on the second last page, perhaps it’s the ‘almost-ending’) to a book I’ve ever read. In a Parisian cafe during the Nazi occupation of Paris, Picasso is approached by a German officer.
‘One officer who considered himself culturally advanced approached the artist as he sipped coffee at a table beneath the green pavement awning. The officer held a reproduction of the mural Guernica, barely larger than postcard size.
“Pardon me” he said, holding the card out. “You did this, didn’t you?”
Picasso put his cup delicately onto its saucer, turned to the picture and then to the officer, and responded, “No. You did.”
Guernica is great. It brings to life a dark, tragic, event and takes you back in time not to the event itself, but to the people of Guernica and to their story. And it’s the story that makes it great. It’s funny, moving, quirky in places, quiet and then loud and above all it’s a love story and a bloody good one!
It allows me to revise my maths equation to
Dave Boling is still a Washington journalist (and great writer)+ Picasso was still a bit of a genius (and had great line in Nazi put-downs ) = Guernica (a great book you should definitely read!)
If you’re interested, there’s a good review of Guernica on LindyLouMac’s Book Reviews blog, which includes a link to an interview with Dave Boling.
Or if you like your reviews done visually by bona-fide genius actors, then the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch (can’t wait for next series of Sherlock!) reviews it below (in the beautiful Mykonos of all places!) – And if I’m honest I’m including this partly to try and entice my partner to read my blog as she thinks Mr Cumberbatch is a bit special!