To be honest summarising this novel, without giving away everything is a bit difficult so here is the plot in one brief nutshell.
A journalist, possibly Javier Cercas himself, becomes obsessed with the Spanish Civil War rebel leader Rafael Sanchez Mazas, who manages to escape death twice. First he runs away from a firing squad and then while he is hiding he notices that he has be discovered by a soldier, who ignores him. Thus Sanchez Mazas is able to seek refuge with some farmers and survive the war.
As the journalist becomes more curious he starts to dig deeper into Sanchez Maza’s life and uncover more secrets and eventually writes a novel based on his discoveries (it’s the second part of the book). Yet he is still unsatisfied as he feels that it is unfinished. Eventually through an interview with Roberto Bolano (and I adored this section of the book) he manages to seek out a soldier who might have had contact with Sanchez Mazas.
Probably the most valuable lesson this journalist learns is the notion of the hero in literature and why a story is not complete unless there is one. There are discussions on the qualities of good and bad writing and what actually makes a writer different from a journalist.
Although I enjoyed reading this book I felt that some sections were slightly stronger than others. The first and last parts are pure brilliance, while the section where we actually read the novella is a slight disappointment as it just is a retread of the first part of the book. Nonetheless it is definitely worth reading and for those who are not sure about the Spanish Civil War, there is a handy brief history at the back of the book (written by the translator) which should be read first.