It can’t just be me, right? There must be others who can’t quite get their heads around historical fiction. I mean, if you’ve seen the title, chances are you’ll have some idea of what to expect, content-wise, from David Boling’s debut effort. Horror? Bewilderment? Tragedy? Yeh, they’re all present and correct here, and although I’d like to make it clear that I’ve no wish to make light of the shocking events that befell this novel’s titular Basque town, there’s a part of me that wonders just who the hell the author thinks he is to presume that he can get into the mindset of the victims. Is it arrogant? Or have my readerly sensibilities worn down so far over the years that I subconsciously won’t allow myself to be engaged by a simple tale of human experience?
This is the sort of unkempt baggage with which I approached Guernica, so I was pretty pleased to discover that Boling’s elegantly simple prose guides the tale with slightly more grace than I was expecting. Rather than the clunkily matter-of-fact stodge that seems to trundle on throughout a good deal of the genre, we’re instead treated to the unchallenging, but nonetheless warm chronicles of the Ansotegui family. Full of compassion and spark, the first half of the novel is heartily good fun, and there are even moments where the whole thing carries itself like a lighter version of One Hundred Years Of Solitude – Diet Marquez, if you will. Pablo Picasso even drops in for a few cameo appearances; inevitably, perhaps. There are, of course, innumerable references to the Basque oppression during the Spanish Civil War, but for the most part these things hang darkly in the shadows of the novel’s first three volumes. Right up until the understated yet portentous mention of Lieutenant Colonel von Richthofen of the Luftwaffe.
As one might imagine, there’s a drastic change in tone and sympathy in the second half. All the warmth and tenderness that preceded are quickly replaced with solemnity, as an uncomplicated family history evaporates into a straightforward imagination of the horrors of the Guernica bombings. Cynics can say what they like (and I guess I already have), but there’s an undeniable power in the starkness with which Boling details the impact on the townspeople. Never reaching for the huge emotional pull, his masterstroke is leaving the events to speak for themselves.
From this point on, however, Guernica struggles to find a point for itself. I’ll avoid any detailed spoilers here, but the novel does lose main characters. It is perhaps to its detriment that the survivors’ subsequent struggle for a purpose in life overhangs the remainder of the story, at least until Boling finally gives in and goes for the big emotional climax… which then proves to be underwhelmingly predictable. For a writer of such apparent skill and subtlety, it’s a shame to see his first effort stumble to the finishing line in such a disappointing manner. Nonetheless, his clear intelligence and style bode well for the future. And hey, if nothing else, he may well have won me over to historical fiction. If only the rest of the genre was as well-constructed and emotionally engaging as this sets out to be…
It’s far from essential reading, and if you wanted to actually learn something about the bombing of Guernica, you’d probably be better off reading a proper history book. That said, when it’s good, it’s really good, and Boling certainly has the potential to become a very exciting novelist.