Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Guernica--Dave Boling (review)

Guernica, a debut novel by Washington writer Dave Boling, is the tale of two men and their families: Justo Ansotegui, who raised his two brothers and a successful farm after losing both parents, and Miguel Navarro, a fisherman's son too prone to seasickness to be much use on a boat. On another level, it's about the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and beginning of World War Two, and the Basque people who proudly held on to their traditions at a time when their language and customs were outlawed by the Spanish government. Boling portrays the Basque community with depth and a character arc equal to that which one would expect of an individual character:
"The creative Basques decided that cheating [at cards] could be prevented by declaring it a legal part of the game. Accordingly, if one never recognizes the existence of a border, then carrying goods across it is not smuggling, merely nocturnal commerce. And if a race believes it has always lived in its own nation, then protecting its imaginary boundaries is a matter of patriotism, not separatism."
Guernica is also the story behind this painting, which shares its name:

Picasso's mural was a memorial to the victims of the bombing of Guernica--the trial run of a Nazi tactic now used by militaries world-wide: demoralizing the populace by taking out civilians rather than military targets. Within weeks of the bombing, Picasso painted the horror of this senseless attack in shades of gray on an 11' x 25' canvas. Seventy years later, Boling brings both the painting and its subject to life through the written word.

"According to the old Basques, everything that has a name exists. But Justo would argue that things now exist that are beyond description, which imagination cannot conceive: the explosions, the smell of things aflame, the sight of oxen and men mixed into gory minotaurs among the rubble. They existed yet are unspeakable."

Clearly not the prose style of your average newspaper sports columnist. In fact, this book doesn't read at all like it's written by a journalist. Not that news columnists aren't talented at writing beautifully; but the journalists, they like their facts. Sometimes they like those facts in large chunks of expository writing which, shall we say, inspire a tendency to read with eyes closed until the reader perhaps realizes she is now making up the words beneath her eyelids.

Boling does like his facts, but he's not in love with them. The historical aspects are well-researched and thoroughly engrained within the story, without bogging down the plot. For example, Boling provides a broader historical perspective than his main characters could have experienced, via the German officer who mapped out the bombing and who is the chilling focus of a few brief forays outside the main storyline.

Guernica, published by Bloomsbury USA, is only the second novel this year that I've given 5 stars to. Mr. Boling's ongoing book signing/tour schedule can be found on his page And the soundtrack: My song for this one is Spanish Bombs, by The Clash. Not specifically about Guernica, but it does reference the Spanish Civil War.

See also: My Interview with Dave Boling
Fresh Ink Books' review


  1. This book is in my TBR pile, so I'm glad to see you liked it.

  2. Hello,
    found your site via the Bookblogger Appreciation Week, chose yours among the dozens because I liked your name! Very cool.
    While visiting Madrid, I had the opportunity to see the "Guernica" painting. I found it overwhelming, despite being in shades of grey (can't even fathom the impact had it been in color).

  3. Bermudaonion, I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did!

    Welcome, m! Yeah, looking at a reproduction of a mural just doesn't do it justice. I can only imagine the power of this piece when viewed in person.

  4. Wow - 5 stars for Guernica. I have a copy of this so am glad to hear it!

  5. Guernica is one of my husband's favorite paintings — and his favorite Picasso.

  6. I don't give stars for my reviews on my blog but I certainly agree that this is one of my favorite books of the years. A lovely story that I reviewed here.

  7. I liked this enough to give it five stars too. Great review and I love that you included the painting. My review is here:

    Thank you.