Guernica By Dave Boling
I knew the painting Guernica and the history of this Spanish town before reading the new book of the same title by first-time novelist Dave Boling. The town of Guernica is in Basque country, inland from the coast, south of the seaside town of San Sebastian, just over the French-Spanish border. Then and now the residents of this area think of themselves as Basque first, and Spanish or French second. The novel is set primarily in the years 1933-1940 in the town of Guernica and the surrounding area. It is the story of three brothers, Justo, Josepe and Xabier. Justo takes over the family farm in the hills near Guernica. Josepe becomes a fisherman on the coast and Xabier becomes a priest. We follow the brother’s lives as some marry and have children and some become involved in the growing political movement as Franco comes to power along with the Guardia Civil patrol. There is fear among the Basques – and rebellion.
I travelled in Spain in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Camping on the magnificent unspoiled beach at San Sebastian, I remember the Guardia Civil patrolling, along the cliffside above the beach, with rifles and dogs. It was very intimidating; at that time and for several more years, Spain was a country in which one was very careful. It is difficult now to imagine those years and the earlier years of the Fascist regime. Street names have now returned to their pre-Franco names, borders are no longer patrolled and Spain has become an affluent western European country.
It is fascist Spain in which the characters in this book live. I knew, before I read the novel, that bombs would destroy Guernica. I feared for these characters as I read, knowing that death would come for at least some of them. Life became difficult for everyone in these Civil War years; people were hungry, near starvation. There is fighting in Madrid, and although people in Guernica are worried, they believe they are too far away from the conflict to be concerned for themselves. They plan to escape into the caves in the hills if the Nationalist troops approach the town. The fishermen on the coast who once smuggled wine are now smuggling people into France and food into Spain.
On April 26, 1937, on a Monday, market day, the town was bombed. Not only were incendiary bombs dropped, destroying buildings and killing crowds of people, but individual citizens were shot as they ran. This was a cruel and calculated plan to destroy an innocent population – in three hours of bombing thousands were killed. Some survived – the fortunate. Having lost so many of those they loved, the survivors did not feel “fortunate.”
Woven into the story of the people of Guernica is the story of Picasso and the painting Guernica. This painting was at first a commission for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair to be held in Paris, where Picasso was living at that time. Picasso was struggling with a theme, when the news with photographs and film of the horror of the destruction of Guernica reached Paris. The painting became a protest – a scream of horror and grief for the people of Guernica. Certainly it was not what the Spanish government expected. It was shown at the World’s Fair and then toured around the world for many years. It found a home for many years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Picasso had specified in his will that he would not allow the painting to go to Spain until after the death of Franco and the return of Spain to a Republic. In 1992 the painting was finally taken to Spain and now occupies a room in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. It is magnificent.