Book review GUERNICA by Boling, DaveWORLD OF WONDERS

By Dave Boling
New York: Picador, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-330—46066-8
370 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2016

As the title suggests, this is a novel centered on the devastating bombing of Guernica by German and Italian planes on April 26, 1937 during the Civil War in Spain. Many commentators on that so-called Spanish Civil War actually see the participation of Germany and Italy to be much more a dress rehearsal for a coming larger war in Europe which finally came in 1939 with the beginning of World War II.

Franco was the head of the rebels who attacked the Spanish government and he had the Germans and Italians on his side. The Basque region of Spain, and for this novel particularly, the coastal regions in northeast Spain, were a major target of war and mayhem on the Basque people who, in the main, were vehemently opposed to Franco.

The central Basque figures in the novel are in or related to the Ansotegui family. There were three brothers whom we follow from their very young years as boys helping their father with their poor farm, to the adulthood of the three, the oldest and toughest, Justo, his younger brother Josepe and finally the youngest Xabier.

Justo inherited and took over the family farm, Josepe left farming which he hated and became successful in the fishing business and the physically weaker, but very bright Xabier, became a fairly high ranking clergyman in the Roman Catholic Church.

Justo married Mariangeles when she was about 20 and they soon had their only child, Miren. She was the love of their lives and became quite central to the whole story.

As the author tells his tale the characters, even bit characters, and are vivid, live, and believable. Often they don’t in any way advance the “story” but they help to create a convincing human environment which helps the reader “FEEL” the times and difficulties.

Little by little the reader is taken through the lives of this farm family and relatively small town of Guernica from the early 1930s up to the time when even their area of northwest coastal Spain was in danger of attack. However, the citizens of Guernica remained fairly unaware of just how serious the danger was to even their town.

Eventually as most anyone reading these notes would know, Guernica was not only attacked, but savagely bombed causing enormous death and mayhem. It was seen by many historians of the period to be a “show case” bombing to show what German power could really do.

The author’s treatment of the devastation and destruction of Guernica by the bombing is chilling and frightening and left this reader not only horrified but even feeling deeply the power of the pain, suffering and terror of the citizens of Guernica.

The novel does have three other themes that are sort of added features to the story of the building toward the bombing of Guernica and the aftermath. However, the essence and power of the novel, for this reader at least, were the sections that led up to the bombing and then the bombing itself and its immediate aftermath.

However, the author has three other stories blended in. He follows two of the main characters who soon join the Basque underground in fighting against Franco and his German and Italian allies. Secondly, we follow some of the Guernica children who survived the bombing and were sent to England for safety during the war. Thirdly, we are introduced to two English people who touch upon Guernica, a woman who works in England with the refugee children, and her lover and soon to be husband, who is a RAF pilot and not only goes to Germany, but, in a daring but highly unlikely set of events, himself ends up in Guernica where an even more astonishing connection occurs.

I did find those sorts of “added on” stories interesting, but it did stretch my sense of the unity and believability of the way the story developed to include those sorts of “added” sections as they seemed to me.

However, a quite unsatisfactory addition to the story of Guernica itself was the early introduction of Pablo Picasso to the story and his involvement in Spain (his homeland) and then his creation of the famous gigantic mural, Guernica in 1937.

This use of the Picasso story just didn’t fit into the story that author Boling was creating and appeared to me as sort of a weak author’s ploy to attract readers to the work BECAUSE of the Picasso connection. I’ll even admit that, to some extent, that was true for me, however, when I actually read the novel, it was those Picasso-related sections of the novel that most disappointed me.

The rest of the characters in the novel came off as quite decent and normal people who suffered deeply from the Spanish Civil War, and even WWII later on, and who were believable and heroic people.

Picasso came across as a Spanish citizen certainly deeply troubled by the Spanish Civil War, but so absorbed in himself and his painting that he just didn’t seem to me to fit in this otherwise very touching novel.

Nonetheless, the tale of the Basque people and even the British who came to their aide after the bombing was a touching and well told story. I would just have liked the novel more without Picasso and his huge ego being so lionized in the story.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett