On 19 August 1936 Hercules the boxer stands on the quayside at Coruña and watches Fascist soldiers piling up books and setting them alight. With this moment a young carefree group of friends are transformed into a broken generation.
Out of this incident during the early months of Spain's tragic civil war, Manuel Rivas weaves a colourful tapestry of stories and unforgettable characters to create a panorama of twentieth-century Spanish history. For it is not only the lives of Hercules the boxer and his friends that are tainted by the unending conflict, but also those of a young washerwoman who sees souls in the clouded river water and the stammering son of a judge who uncovers his father's hidden library.
As the singed pages fly away on the breeze, their stories live on in the minds of their readers.
Even when things fall quiet, there are two classes of silence. A friendly silence that keeps us company, where words can be at leisure, and another silence. One that frightens. Silence lies at the heart of the latest novel from Galician journalist Rivas (The Carpenter s Pencil). In 1936, Franco s Falangists burned books in Coru a s Mar a Pita Square and at the docks that supplied the Galician city s livelihood of fish, trade, and shipping. Rivas s novel is teeming with voices the unbeatable boxer who worked as a plumber, Arturo da Silva; his sentimental sparring partner, Vicente Curtis, burdened with the nickname Hercules son of a whore since he was a boy; the impossibly sweet voiced tango singer, Lu s Terranova; Olinda, the quick-fingered matchstick maker turned saboteur turned washerwoman. Each narrative alone might have furnished a novel. The hole burnt into the city s intellectual center smolders and spreads under Franco for decades, devouring the talent, sanity, memory, morality, and lives of an entire generation. Francisco Crecente, known as Polka, a gardener and sometime bagpipe player, is forced to rake and bury the charred books. He s imprisoned, sent to a labor camp, and becomes a gravedigger. The soldiers who set the books ablaze ascend to power to become an unscrupulous censor, a corrupt inspector, and a fanatical judge. Children grow up stuttering (afraid to speak) or lazy eyed (refusing to see). They finger the charred edges of the books their parents salvaged and hid, searching for answers to unanswerable questions, helpless to recover either individual stories or the collective history lost to the flames. Making sense of the lively crowd of characters and not strictly linear structure can be as confusing as sorting unbound half-burned pages, but attentive readers will be rewarded by a rare find: an epic and resoundingly lyrical refutation of totalitarianism and cruelty.