It is the ninth hour, three in the afternoon, on June 20, 451 in the Catalan Fields. Attila orders his men to form and the battle begins. The Huns cavalry, augmented with Sarmatian horsemen, pounced, charge after charge, upon the contingent of Romans, Alans, Saxons, and Burgundians. Meanwhile, the Ostrogoths of Valamiro rush over the Visigoths of Theodoric. Javelins and spears fly. Melee is reached with a spear, scrama ―The Gothic dagger― and sword… The projectiles of the slings and arrows in the storm of combat cover the sky like lethal hail. Blood overflows the stream that runs through the battlefield. The man who describes the struggle as if he were watching it – although, paradoxically, he is blind due to a terrible accident with explosives – is the historian and ex-military professional José Soto Chica (Santa Fe, Granada, 49 years old), author of essays and novels realistically reliving the war of late antiquity (or a bed scene of Queen Govinda). Soto Chica was also a blacksmith and worked in a forge, which also gives him a curious perspective, worthy of Siegfried and Conan, to talk about the times of iron. His works include Empires and barbarians, war in the dark ages; The Visigoths, sons of an angry god (both in Desperta Ferro) and The god who inhabits the sword, winner of the latest Edhasa Prize for Historical Narratives.
How do you make it appear that you are an eyewitness? “It’s like I’m sorry,” he explains behind his large modern Homer dark glasses. “Someone said that we are more children of our frustrations than of our virtues: I have the peculiarity that I do not see, so I try to see the story in my mind, and I describe those images. I try to turn my lack into an advantage and put in what I write what I would like to see. Actually, if you can describe the past it is because you somehow see it. ” Why this passion for barbarians? “Late antiquity, the time of invasions, is a time of crisis and change, and crises and changes are always very attractive to a writer. You never know where the story could have gone, it’s very interesting. And it is a twilight world that has a certain romantic sense. The barbarians are the others, those outside the empire, the place that offered security and prosperity. They did not want to destroy Rome, they sought to join its sphere ”.
Of the aureole of savagery of the barbarians, one of whose icons is the famous painting The entry of the Huns into Rome, of Ulpiano Checa (cover of one of his books), the writer says that “we continue to be victims of the Roman vision of the world, that cliché is what the Romans wanted us to believe. To them, the barbarians were irrational; culturally it is true that they were light years away and that they had no history until they encountered Rome or, as Saint Isidore says, until the moment when the Romans put their courage to the test against them ”. The holy historian said it specifically of the Goths. Soto Chica has a special fondness for the Visigoths. “I grew up as a historian with Byzantium, Persia and the first Islam, but it is true that I am very interested in the Visigoths, who are actually a people created by Alaric, originally a warrior band, the all the brilliant, golden western ones, who amalgamated different Gothic tribes but also other Germanic warriors, Alans, Gepids, Sarmatians… Alaric did nothing but create a people and humiliate Rome ”. The writer utters the phrase with the deep tone of a Cimmerian bard.
After sacking Rome in 410, the Visigoths took the city’s sacred treasures and trophies. “This treasure, which included the Table of Solomon and other objects from the temple of Jerusalem carried by Vespasian and Titus, became part of the Visigoth national identity; it assured them continuity with the exploits of Alaric and somehow made them heirs of Rome itself ”.
What was Soto Chica before, the military man or the historian? “First I was interested in history, then I was a military man and then a historian, and then a novelist and also a historian. I try to take advantage of having seen wars and fighting. My first book as a child, at age seven, was a youth edition of the Anábasis of Xenophon. And since then, history has always been something alive for me. I grew up as a reader in the library of my town, reading has always been essential in my life. In fact, when my mother found out about my accident, the first thing she asked after knowing that I would live was: ‘Will she be able to read again?’ The writer explains that at 18 he wanted to be a conscientious objector, but did his military service so as not to disappoint his father. He did it in the XI Mechanized Brigade in Badajoz. And as a result of the experience, he decided to become a professional military man. Before, he had been a blacksmith. “At 17 I left high school and started working in a forge in my town, they were three very beautiful years. To be a blacksmith is to be a bit of a magician. I have forged many things, not swords, but a knife ”.
From January to April 1995, Soto Chica volunteered in Bosnia as a blue helmet with the Extremadura Group. “It was very enriching, and at the same time a shock: it was nothing like what I believed to be a war, without any epic, terrible and unpleasant. I remember going into Mostar and seeing all that absolute destruction, and the children that tear your soul apart. War is crap. The great collective failure of the human being. Many militiamen wore cetmes, built by us: war takes away your innocence ”.
The explosives accident
Soto Chica returned to his base in Cerro Muriano (Córdoba), and there he suffered the accident. “It was in the field of maneuvers. I was a bomber, deactivating and lifting explosives. A very young lieutenant who didn’t have to be there – he hadn’t taken the explosives course – made a series of mistakes that led to an unexpected explosion. I was behind. He died in a horrible way. Three kilos of trilita, a brutality. The bait fell to the ground and when he brought it close to the wick it exploded. The explosion tore off my leg and my sight. There was explosive to make a car jump 40 meters. It took them four hours to give us assistance. I was then 14 days in a coma. But at six months he was already in college. “
What is it like to suffer such an experience? “When the explosion reaches you, you feel as if a brutal cramp is running through you. I thought I had stepped on a power line. Then panic. You notice that you are leaving, and you want to go back inside yourself, desperately. At first I couldn’t scream, when I did it was a liberation ”. The writer hardly moves his lips. The darkness behind the glasses seems to absorb all the afternoon light in the bar. “When I got up I saw that it was not the leg but shreds and splintered bone. There was a second explosion. It looked like an attack. I felt an atrocious fear, you want to hold on to life. An extreme weakness after the current blow ”. Pain? “Not at first, just fear. Then it comes. What really upsets you is fear ”. Did you know that you had gone blind? “Yes, from the beginning, his face was badly damaged. My eyeballs popped. The Zeta submachine gun was crossed across his chest and it bent completely against my body. There were other soldiers wounded, a total of 10, one lost his penis and testicles, another also his eyesight ”.
After something like that, one wonders how the writer can talk about it and carry it so naturally. “I don’t know, a doctor told me: ‘You can do two things, be a problem for others or not.’ When you are like this, mutilated, you depend forever on people and I didn’t want to be a bitter asshole ”. He was 24 years old.
It is rare that someone combines history and novel with such fortune. “For me, history is life and it has to be interesting, if it is only erudition you can do something unbearable; in Spain we have made a lot of neglect of disclosure, which requires narrative capacity. The move to the novel is natural: if you like history you ask for something else, to know why Leovigildo had that ability to be implacable, that something else the novel allows you, as I do in The god who inhabits the sword”.
When asked what is his favorite historical episode, his great moment, his face lights up, marked with small dots where he still keeps fragments of the explosive under his skin. “The appearance of the Emperor Heraclius in 622 before his troops, the last great field army of the Roman Empire, next to Lake Nicea, with black military footwear and not with purple boots, to show himself as one more soldier who was going to lead them against the Persians from the front line. Heraclius, who will win in the battle of Nineveh, wields as a banner the sacred Cristopolia or Mandylion, the Holy Face of Edessa, miraculously printed, like the Holy Shroud. One day he will be considered the first crusader, the recuperator of the True Cross, and the greatest hero in Europe, more than King Arthur or El Cid, and all monarchs will love each other as descendants of him, including Felipe II. Heraclius before his troops, what a scene!
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.