The middle third of Soldiers of Salamis is a mini-biography of Sánchez Mazas, telling the story of his escape and what followed it in the border forests, and describing his career both before and afterwards. A "good minor writer" and a leading fascist ideologue — member number four of the Falange — Sánchez Mazas was instrumental in fuelling the atmosphere of violence which led to civil war. Afterwards, as a minister under Franco, he was content to accept the failure of his fascist ideals, with the Falange subsumed into the single party of government and nothing like a "dictatorship of poets" eventuating. (This is lightly dramatised but Cercas claims it as a "true tale" and it seems to agree with the history.)
The first third of Soldiers of Salamis is an account of how Cercas — or at least a narratorial alter-ego with the same name, writing in the first person — became interested in Sánchez Mazas and his lucky survival. He talks to historians, delves into records, and tracks down the surviving "forest friends" who helped Sánchez Mazas hide after his escape. This is a lively narrative of discovery combined with a portrait of the narrator's life, which involves writer's block, a working-class girlfriend, and meetings in Barcelona's cafes and bars. (It is not clear how close any of this is to Cercas' actual life.)
The last third of Soldiers of Salamis picks up after the publication of the biography (which, to add to the metafictional confusion, also has the title Soldiers of Salamis). A story told to Cercas by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano leads him to the soldier Miralles, now in a nursing home in France. Miralles fought with the Republicans throughout the Civil War, was present at the execution Sánchez Mazas survived — and may or may not have been the soldier who let him get away — and then escaped into France, joined the French Foreign Legion, and fought with the Free French throughout the Second World War. (This feels more fictional, but it represents the stories of all those who fought "with courage and instinctive virtue" and have been forgotten.)
At the end Cercas appropriates the fascist appeal to Spengler's "squad of soldiers that at the eleventh hour has always saved civilisation", suggesting that it was in fact Miralles and his comrades who did the saving. Apart from that, however, he doesn't attempt to judge or to preach: as a study in the nature of heroism, Soldiers of Salamis is remarkably nuanced.
The tripartite structure works well. A biography of a minor fascist by itself would be unexciting, even with a bit of wartime adventure, but the account of its writing gives depth, foregrounding the complexities and uncertainties of history. And the story of Miralles provides a moral balance: as Cercas' girlfriend says, "How can you want to write about a fascist with the number of really good lefty writers there must be around!"
The translator provides four pages at the end with a brief history of the Civil War and some notes on key figures. Soldiers of Salamis may not have quite the same power if the historical background has no resonance, but it is still a compelling story and its themes are ultimately universal.