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Guernica

by Dave Boling

"From medieval times Guernica was a crossroads of the old Roman Way and the Fish and Wine Route that wound through the hills inland from the sea. Intersecting them both was the pilgrims' route to Santiago de Compostela. For centuries, representatives of the region met under the Guernica oak to shape laws that outlawed torture and unwarranted arrest and granted unprecedented privileges to women. Although aligned with the kingdom of Castile, they maintained their own legal system and demanded that the series of Castilian monarchs from the time of Ferdinand and Isabella come stand, in person, beneath the oak of Guernica and swear to protect the Basque laws. Because the economy of the region hadn't evolved under the feudal system, the Basques owned their own land and were never divided into sovereigns and serfs, merely farmers, fishermen and craftsmen, free and independent of any overlord."

In 1937, on the afternoon of a market day, coming out of the sun in a clear sky, without any warning, squadrons of Luftwaffe bombed the little town for four hours. Farmers and their families had brought in their animals and poultry for sale or barter, jokes and gossip and neighbourly insults were being exchanged, women were selling their cookery, needlework, soap and vegetables from their stalls, and little boys were running about. Picasso’s attempt to portray that unspeakably hideous and savage cruelty could give little more than a snapshot of what followed. The houses were made of wood. There were no fire-engines, no shelters, no sirens, and only a very small hospital where the nuns were as unprepared for the dying and the wounded as was the rest of the town. Little more than the ancient oak on the hill, and a few out-lying farms, and some terribly damaged and burned human beings and animals survived.

What did the rest of Europe hear about all this? Very little. Most ordinary people knew only reproductions of Picasso’s painting. Baird was only then inventing television in his Brighton studio: there were no televised scenes of towering black smoke or torn and burned people, only the screaming horse and the bull on Picasso’s canvas were emblematic of the terror in a small market town where hardly anyone had ever seen a motorcar.

Dave Boling's lively, compassionate and often humorous novel is about fictional characters. It is deeply researched, with sharp understanding of the atmosphere and political climate of the region at the time. It is a romantic novel, yet it is sensible of the poverty, oppression and instability caused by the complex and volatile politics of the time, an echo of which can still be heard in the streets of Guernica today.

A full-size tapestry depicting Picasso’s painting is coming to London in April 2009 and will be shown at the Whitechapel Gallery.

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