Niños Feroces with three subplots- one inside another similar to stacking blocks requires an attentive reader, but it is worth it because the reader is in for a good story or stories along with a manual on how to become a writer. The stacking block approach, while a bit challenging for readers, is pulled off by Silva’s cinematographic- like narrative that contemporary readers easily understand. The beginning sentence of the book already prepares the readers for the subplots: soy UN hombre que habla a traves de otro hombre que habla a traves de otro hombre que habla a tráves de otro hombre…in 400 pages full of historical details and references.
The book spans about 70 plus years beginning with the Spanish Civil War when Jorge García’s father is killed, and ends with the present day 15-M movement. Along the way are interwoven Lázaro’s plight, the young narrator, and his desire to write a novel. His love of literature is also a central theme of the book.
His teacher and mentor, also named Lázaro, and already an accomplished writer, introduces him to the story of Jorge García, a Spaniard, who fought along Hitler’s army during WW II. Jorge was one of the few Spaniards who did not abandon the German cause, even after Franco had recalled all Spanish troops in 1944. Jorge was also part of the SS. - one of the few Spaniards who where part of the German army. All of this is historical document to render Jorge’s story credibility and plausible narrative.
The protagonist tries to understand a young man’s desire to fight in this foreign war, motivates Lazaro to research his subject and travel to many of the battles scenes. There is very little preaching or demonizing in this novel about García and his war companions.
It is more a search for understanding than judging. At the end, there are more questions than answers but the reader does not feel animosity toward Jorge-maybe just to the circumstances that led him to become part of the SS- the personification of evil in our modern conscious as the writer tell us. The book is reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s brilliant essay on the banality of evil regarding Eichmann’s trial at the end of WWII. We see the transformation of Jorge as an orphaned adolescent to a young law student, and later into a falangista, and a member of the SS. In later years, he is a father and grandfather in contemporary Spain who wants somebody to tell his story as it should be told. This is due to Silva’s talented skills as a writer where Jorge is transformed into a likable or ordinary neighbor living next door.
At the end of the novel, we find out that Lázaro, the mentor was supposed to write García’s story. He had met the falangista and members of the Spanish Blue Division in many occasions, but never actually wrote his story but did not want it go to waste and gives it to his talented student. Along the way, he is also confronted with present day Spaniards who also served in Afghanistan and Iraq so it is not only history but the present he is witnessing.
Lázaro is part of the young post-modern-hyper real culture that has been exposed to wars via video games and TV, all from the comfort of his living room and now he is thrust into this reality. Wars are still part of our daily reality even if the welfare state keeps it at a distant, and this something our young protagonist has a hard time understanding. The book also offers a homage to the craft of writing and this might be of more interest to potential readers. Most avid readers also want to be writers and this book will provide some insights on writing along with some references of writers like Jorge Semprún, Ernesto Sábato, Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin. Walter Benjamin’s plight and subsequent death in the town of Portobau that both Lázaro and Lázaro visit were quite poignant and stand out as one of the best chapters of this book. The chapter of Jorge falling in love in Russia is also quite good.
Silva also provides us with many details, perhaps too many, of war battles and events that have shaped modern Spanish history-mainly the Civil War, the falangistas, Primo de Rivera, and the battle of Krasny Bor. The description of Krasny Bor where 70% of the Spaniard who fought there lost their lives is very well narrated and more reminiscence of an historical essay than a novel.
Along the way, there are many modern day cultural references and writers. It is a good idea to read this as a hypertext-with a smart phone or internet nearby to look up some of the events and references. If it were to be published as an e-book-the explanations might be included. Overall this book offers very elegant writing from a seasoned writer who has won various awards. The universality of the themes, the ambivalence toward war in our modern society, the indifference in which veterans are treated when they return from war, and the many residual effects a civil war has in a society for many years to come are all themes that he uses in the book.
It is also a story about youth and its ambition.-and a love of literature. All these themes render it appropriate for translation and for a wider audience. The language is also standard Spanish with very little colloquialism. The book overall is a winner.