For a Sack of Bones
Awarded the highest prize in Catalan letters, the Ramon Llull Prize, this somber novel, first published in Spain, tells a tale in the terrible years after the Spanish Civil War. Genís Aleu, the protagonist, is a soldier of the Legion with a past. Enraged and resentful after the deaths of his best friend and of his father, Genís returns to the peninsula after years in North Africa, planning revenge and determined to carry out the promise he made to his dying father. Genís must find the unmarked grave of Bartomeu Camús, murdered in a prison camp after the war was over. “Don’t ever tell anyone, not even your mother,” his father warns him, “don’t trust these people. They’ve no sense of compassion or pity. Don’t believe them… Play along, fool them into thinking you’re one of them. There’ll be a treasure for you at the end.”
The novel’s chapters alternate between 1949, with Genís’s steps toward the fulfillment of his father’s wishes, and the kinder years before the war, his childhood and early adolescence. The portrait of a divided nation is brutal and one-sided. In this Spain, indoctrination, hunger, and hypocrisy rule the day. The winners are uniformly ostentatious and cruel, the losers angry. The translation falters once in a while (“court martial” is inaccurately translated as “council of war”), but the narrative is strong. Still, the reader gets to the last bitter page, pondering how deep the well of resentment can be. After closing this novel, you’ll need a walk in the woods, or at the very least a chamomile infusion.