Lord of All the Dead is a curious book. Labeled as a “nonfiction novel,” it opens with the enigmatic sentence, “His name was Manuel Mena, and he died at the age of nineteen in the Battle of the Ebro.” So begins the journey of acclaimed Spanish writer Javier Cercas to grapple with a painful period in his family’s history and learn more about the young man who went off to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War … his great-uncle, Manuel Mena.
Cercas’s previous novels, Soldiers of Salamis and The Impostor, explored Spain’s divisive and fiery descent into chaos, but Lord of All the Dead goes beyond fiction to tell the poignant nonfiction of Cercas’s family and their memories of Manuel Mena. The result is a hypnotic reverie of ifs and what ifs, as Cercas combines the known with the unknown, drawing upon his fiction-writing skills to imagine the first moments of Manuel Mena’s soldierly life all the way to his last terrifying moments in a last-ditch assault in the Battle of the Ebro in 1938. Along the way, nonfiction gives way to “fiction” as Cercas inserts himself into the story as a third-person character, a writer, seeking Mena’s family members, stoic comrades, and those who might answer the question of why Mena chose to fight with Franco’s fascists.
Cercas takes his title, most fittingly, from a line in the epic poem The Iliad. When Odysseus meets Achilles in the house of the dead, he exclaims how Achilles must rule in the underworld, since he was so glorious in life. One understands how Cercas feels about his great-uncle’s life and sacrifice with the haunting response of Achilles: “…I would rather toil as the slave of a penniless, landless labourer, than reign here as lord of all the dead.” Recommended.