From the horror of Guernica to Clydeside exile and peace

John Sawkins (left) and James Gerard with Haizean, which is Basque for in the wind. Photograph: Neil Hanna
John Sawkins (left) and James Gerard with Haizean, which is Basque for in the wind. Photograph: Neil Hanna
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A novel about a Basque doctor forced to flee Guernica after the 1937 bombing and who sets up a surgery for the shipyards in poverty-stricken Clydeside is being launched this week as part of the 2017 Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival.

Haizean is becoming a cult read in Spain as the country commemorates the 80th anniversary of the bombing of civilians in the town in the north of the country by German and Italian planes supporting General Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Authors James Gerard and John Sawkins say the complex emotions suffered by the main character Dr Asier Santa Maria, including trauma, isolation and depression in the early years of his exile in Scotland before finding peace, resonates across the decades, mirroring conditions experienced by many people today, including refugees.

The novel, set in Spain and Scotstoun in Glasgow, sees the doctor, who was in despair, brought to Scotland by a Scottish journalist who fought in the International Brigades against Franco.

The second half of the story covers the setting up of a peace centre in a flat in Scotstoun, inspired by the one in Guernica and Picasso’s painting of the atrocity.

Gerard, a mental health campaigner and writer, who along with Sawkins will read extracts from the novel on 20 October at a free event, starting at 6:30pm at Augustine United Church in Edinburgh, said: “I went to Guernica with friends and after I got home I started researching it. I had been going through a bad time mentally, and the writing, and writing and writing, got me out of bed in the mornings.

“I found that I was able to sort of live through and resolve a lot of my depression through what happened to Asier.”

Sawkins, a former lecturer in English at the University of the Highlands and Islands, said: “I thought about what it must have been like for Asier spending 40 years in exile, reclaiming his identity in a strange land where he would have been an interloper without the support of the Spanish Diaspora.

“I also think this story resonates with what’s been going on in Catalonia. The heavy-handed way police reacted to people trying to vote was reminiscent of how Franco behaved.”