‘’Some questions in life just don’t have an answer,’’ writes the Galician author Manuel Rivas in this courageous, candid and occasionally cryptic novel, Books Burn Badly. A sentiment for whom, as one gets older, resonates with increasing force of unfortunate clarity and truth.
He is after all, right.
Some questions in life don’t have an answer:
Why is the deplorable Paris Hilton allowed to spend the best part of new hospital wing on clothes, while literally thousands of malnourished children are allowed to starve to death throughout Africa? Why is the equally vile Robert Mugabe allowed to continue presiding over a country, which he himself, has systematically raped beyond all recognition? Why has much of Europe’s political rightwing once again, been allowed to step unto the corridors of power and persuasion?
Has European history not taught us anything? Is it not glaringly obvious that anything radically rightwing induced, more often than not, ends up usurping the wellbeing and morality of another? One need only shudder at the mere thought of Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Thatcher, Milosevic, Le Pen, et al. And one need look no further than the Spanish Civil War to ascertain the cruel darkness to which humankind can succumb; especially when he who shouts the loudest, is wholeheartedly embraced by he who understands the least: ‘’Everyone’s good for war, if not for killing, then for dying.’’
The collective forgetfulness that has since 1939, nurtured Spain upon its quest of assimilation and redemption, is an ideology to which such recent Spanish writers as Javier Cercas (The Soldiers of Salamis) and Rivas (The Carpenter’s Pencil) do not wholeheartedly subscribe. By way of considered reflection, they have instead, chosen to shed light upon the cruelty, futility and trajectory of their country’s Civil War. In this instance, barely a month after the war’s outbreak, the Galician port of La Coruna fell to Francisco Franco’s troops. And it is here where much of this rather superlative novel is fundamentally based.
On August 19th 1936, Hercules the boxer watches as assorted groups of Fascist soldiers pile up books, before setting them on fire. Said moment is at the vanguard of what transforms a young group of friends – who immediately prior to this, spent their days sunbathing at the oft mentioned lighthouse – into a fragmented, and at times, cruel and confused generation: Leica (the photographer), Arutro de Silva (the lightweight boxing champion), Polka (the gardener), Luis Terranova (the talented tango singer), Olinda (the laundress) and Ricardo Samos (who actually supervised the book burning) along with the aforementioned Hercules (himself an aspiring boxer), all find their lives irrevocably altered – if not forever torn apart.
This is a book that takes the reader on an epic journey, which, although troubling, is ultimately rewarding upon conclusion. By way of dense discernment and the use of multiple narrative voices (which take place amid a number of different time periods), Rivas has poignantly, and at times poetically, captured the tragedy of an entire generation: ‘’Everybody keeps a safe distance. Everybody except for the poets. Those who reveal the inner sanctuary, get to say the unspeakable.’’
At times beautiful, at times harrowing, and wonderfully translated by, Johnathan Dunne, Books Burn Badly is a very important, very intelligent, and very inspiring read. It’s author Manuel Rivas is to be applauded – even in only for reminding us of what the poet Heinrich Heine once pronounced: Where books are burned, so too will human beings be burned.’’