Alas, friends. It’s been far too long since I graced you with an update of my reading docket. It’s not because I haven’t been reading; far from it actually. The past few weeks have been spent catching up on my New Yorker readings, a task that was growing far too large and unruly to ignore any longer. Plus, I was moving to a new apartment and starting a new job (check back for a later post on my life changes), and so I felt it was easier to read a collection of articles rather than risk escaping into a new book. I needed to adjust to things, and it’s a lot easier doing that when I’m not yearning to escape to my literary happy place.
Finally, I felt it was time to move on, and I did so with Guernica by Dave Boling, a book I received as part of the early readership program on LibraryThing.com. I had no idea what to expect when I started, which was almost exciting. It could be good, bad, forgettable, life-changing–who knows! Of all the books on my fall reading list, I wanted to read it first because I knew that a review on Library Thing could improve my chances of receiving another free book in the future. So I put my reading list on hold and dove into the world of Guernica.
That world would be Spain–more specifically, Basque country–during the Spanish Civil War. Boling, a Washington state-area journalist, follows the collected lives of a large, extended family as they confront the violent politics of Europe in the 1930’s (watch out: there’s Nazis involved), specifically as it threatens Guernica, the historical and cultural capitol of the Basque people. It’s not a long book, but Boling attempts to cover a lot of ground and a lot of time; beginning with the childhood of the family patriarch, Justo, and after a lot of diversions, ending in the same spot with his granddaughter. Of course, Boling means for this to “mean something,” and as this is a family epic, I can only imagine it’s supposed to leave one with warm, fuzzy thoughts about the strength and endurance of familial bonds as they emerge from tragedy.
The tragedy Justo’s family endures would be the German bombing of Guernica as they and the rebel Spanish government, led by Generalissimo Franco, seek to tamp out any resistance to the new Fascist rule. The Basques, we are reminded time and time again, are an insular, largely self-ruling group of Spaniards, but above all they support freedom and democracy. According to Boling, they invented it or something. Historically, the bombing of Guernica is pretty bad: the Germans used more firepower flattening this one village than they did during the entirety of World War I. Pablo Picasso used it as inspiration for his famous painting, and the devastation was able to awaken England and France to Germany’s real threat.
This is a big deal, and a subject that many American school kids don’t know much about. I never knew much about Guernica, or its role in World War II. I knew a little about the Spanish Civil War from my reading of For Whom the Bell Toll, but not much. Apparently, Boling also likes Hemingway and he attempts to paint his story in very Hemingway-esque strokes: the simple sentences and stark language, the red and orange hues of early 21st century Spain, the inane violence. However, Boling lacks all of Hemingway’s subtlety and talent, and the result is disappointing.
In fact, I found myself constantly putting the book down and never wanting to pick it back up again; it’s that bad. While Hemingway’s language is stark and haunting, Boling’s attempt at effect falls horribly flat. At times, it felt like it was written by a first-year creative writing student. One can only be reminded of someone’s hair and eye color so many times. Plus, the story was pointless. At no point did I ever figure out who the main character was supposed to be. Justo felt right for awhile, then it seemed like attention was shifting to his daughter Miren. Then she died, and then it was the story of her widowed husband, Miguel. Then, there’s the giant extended family, all of which we pay intimate visits and learn the innermost workings of ALL their hearts and minds. Do you see the lack of subtlety yet? Where is the reader supposed to focus? It’s as if there is no plot, and Boling is merely repeating something that has already happened. Something that he heard about, secondhand by the sound of it. How are readers supposed to worry about what their hero/heroine will do next, when it all feels so pre-ordained?
Unfortunately, there are no heros in Boling’s story–and unlike some postmodernism, this isn’t supposed to be ironic. One gets the feeling that Boling genuinely likes his characters, and he spends a lot of time discussing their many attributes. But that’s the problem: he likes them too much. Not one has a flaw. Sure, one may be mildly selfish or strong-headed, but in Boling’s world, there’s nothing hindering his characters’ peace of mind. All of their conflict is outwardly inflicted. Of course, a German bombing is one hell of a conflict. But besides that, nothing happens. Boling’s family merely reacts, and their reactions aren’t even that original. Ultimatly, I couldn’t care about any of Boling’s characters, nor what happens to the Basque people for that matter. Again, it’s as if Boling is rehashing something that’s already happened, with no real insight into the human heart. It’s as if we’re reading about paper dolls.