Niños feroces (Fierce Children) is a novel about writing a novel, but reads more like historiographical musing than a piece of fiction. Lorenzo Silva’s subject is notionally Franco’s Blue Division, the 16,000-strong force that fought alongside the Germans on the Russian Front and, in a scaled-down version, under SS command at the fall of Berlin. The book’s main character is Lázaro, a Spanish creative writing student, and much of the narrative consists of his reflections on the difficulties of trying to think like these soldiers. Lázaro constantly worries that “I lack the military experiences that would allow me to command the subject”.
Lázaro concentrates on investigating the life of Jorge García Vallejo, a Blue Division member whom he learns about through the reminiscences of his creative writing tutor. García Vallejo witnessed his Nationalist father’s murder by Republicans in the Spanish Civil War; volunteering to fight the Russians was a way of playing out his consequent loathing for Bolshevism. Ideologically suspect we might now say, but there is still value in a discussion of his motives, particularly for anyone who assumes that the Spanish Civil War consisted of a Manichaean struggle between the forces of light and darkness. In his attempts to understand García Vallejo, Lázaro travels in the former soldier’s footsteps, spends hours reading his journals, and even interviews contemporary Iraq veterans, but the closest we ever get to him are reports of conversations he had with Lázaro’s tutor in the 1980s.