‘The Impostor’ by Javier Cercas (Review – MBIP 2018, Number 12)

After the trials of our trip to the mountains, it was only natural to take a brief rest from our travels, and while we were gathering our strength, the official judges announced which six destinations they enjoyed the most.  Before we in the Shadow Panel follow suit, though, I’ll be taking you on one last journey, this time to Barcelona.  If you enjoy stories, then you’re in for a treat today, as we’ll be making the acquaintance of a man who’s full of it them.  However, as we’ll see, the idea of truth is a nebulous concept at the best of times, and writers know that better than anyone…

The Impostor by Javier Cercas
– MacLehose Press, translated by Frank Wynne
(review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
In 2005, shortly before the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Mauthausen, an elderly Spaniard is unmasked as an impostor.  Having created a fictional background as a survivor of the lesser-known Flossenbürg concentration camp, Enric Marco Battle sees his hard-won reputation crumbling around him.  Where he had been a respected historian, union leader and face of the survivor movement, he is now a social pariah, with people falling over themselves to denounce him.

You’d expect Marco to be crushed by the pressure, but a man able to fool an entire country for decades is made of stronger stuff, and it’s this resilience that fascinates Javier Cercas.  Pushed by his friends into investigating Marcos’ story, the writer decides that his next project will be a non-fiction work examining the phenomenon that is the great impostor.  However, as he attempts to peel back the layers of deceit to uncover the real Marco, he begins to doubt himself and his task.  Should he be spending his time on a subject like Marco?  And, even more disturbing, what if he decides that the old man isn’t such a monster after all?

The Impostor is an unlikely choice for the MBIP longlist, not because of any issues with quality, but owing to a lack of fiction.  Marco is a real figure (as you can see here), and his unmasking in 2005 was a national scandal with ripples spreading worldwide.  While it’s certainly not your usual work of investigation, with plenty of Cercas’ first-person musings, you could be forgiven for doubting its eligibility, and most readers will struggle to dispel the feeling that not all is as is claimed.

However, this blurring of lines between stories and truth is exactly what The Impostor is all about.  As Cercas himself remarks on several occasions (a warning to the reader: he does like to repeat himself), the fiction in this work comes from its subject.  When you have a protagonist like Marco, there’s no real need to invent the details as his life is a story in itself.  Born of a mother who was shut away in an institution, he spent his life bouncing from one place to another, before embarking on a series of adventures, including a stint in the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War, time abroad as a guest worker in Germany during World War Two, and his rise to fame as the face of several major organisations.

But that’s only part of the story, and the writer’s task here, one he reluctantly takes on, having spent years attempting to shirk the responsibility, is to cut through the lies and exaggerations surrounding the enigmatic figure in order to arrive at the truth.  However, when faced with a pathological liar, a man Cercas compares on many occasions to Don Quixote for his insistence on his own version of events, how can we be sure that what we are told is the truth? And is it even possible to discern an objective truth after the passing of so many years?

Perhaps a more important consideration, though, is whether Cercas should be writing the book in the first place.  It takes the author several years to overcome his reservations, and there are many people who would rather he left the subject alone, believing that any attempt to describe Marco’s life will provide the old fraud with unwarranted publicity.  Interestingly, Cercas himself has other reasons for wanting to avoid the task:

Was I not doggedly trying to write a book that was not simply impossible, but reckless?  Was my idea not immoral, not because it would mean playing into Marco’s hands, sanctioning or suppressing his lies (or attempting to absolve him of them), but precisely the opposite, because it would mean putting an end to his lies, telling the truth?  Was it not better to give up, to abandon the book, to leave Marco to the fiction that, over the years, had saved him, without bringing to light the truth that could kill him?
p.69 (Maclehose Press, 2017)

These doubts continue throughout the book, which alternates between the attempts to distinguish between truth and fiction, and the writer’s moral dilemma.  At the back o his mind, there’s always the nagging doubt as to whether he should really be writing about someone who abused the memory of Holocaust victims.

The Impostor can be slow going, particularly at the start, but it makes fascinating reading.  Marco is an intriguing figure, so it’s little wonder Cercas couldn’t help himself in the end, and the question of whether the book should be written gradually gives way to a subtler, more complex issue: was Marco actually a bad man.  The answer seems straight-forward, but the more the writer learns about his subject, the more doubts he has.  As it turns out, Marco is generous, hard-working and ambitious, as well as becoming a man who educated a country about the horrors of the Holocaust – even if he wasn’t actually part of it:

“That’s Enric too,” said Santi.  “On the one hand there’s the con artist, the impostor, and on the other, there’s the man who’ll bend over backwards to do a favour for anyone.  Enric is both: there is no way to separate them.  You either take him or leave him.” (p.390)

We learn that while much of what he says is pure fiction, some of it actually happened, and these discoveries of kernels of truth in the mass of lies cause Cercas to change his view of the great impostor.

An intriguing book, then, the story of a man mixing just the right amount of truth and lies to create something believable and palatable, leaving the audience in the perfect state of uncertainty to achieve his goals.  But I’m not talking about Marco – it’s the writer who is the great master of playing with history, and the reader should never forget that Cercas is the one telling us this story.  There are several passages where we begin to suspect his motives, even if he appears to be wearing his heart on his sleeve:

Was it enough to acknowledge one’s own immorality for it to disappear or be transformed into decency?  Should one not accept, in all honesty, that in order to write ‘In Cold Blood’ or ‘The Adversary’, it was necessary to lay oneself open to a certain moral aberration and thereby to damn oneself?  Was I prepared to damn myself in exchange for writing a masterpiece, always supposing I was capable of writing a masterpiece?  In short, was it possible to write a book about Enric Marco without selling my soul to the devil? (p.167)

Yes, Marco is a high-level impostor, but is Cercas himself beyond reproach?  Writers – trust them at your peril…

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
In many ways, I’m surprised that The Impostor didn’t make the cut.  While I was initially a little underwhelmed at the prospect of over 400 pages in the company of Cercas and his subject, I warmed to the task as the novel went on.  It became more interesting the more the writer moved away from a pure biography and instead explored the nature of truth and guilt.  With this being one of the better examples of writing on the longlist, you might have thought that it would catch the judges’ eye – obviously not…

Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
I could come up with dozens of possible explanations, but I’ll go with just one: Thunderdome.  Two writers enter, one writer leaves, and as Antonio Muñoz Molina strides off into the twilight, it’s Cercas who’s left writhing around in agony on the floor of the cage.*

*No writers were harmed in the making of this post.

Alas, time (along with delays in the library system) has got the better of us once more, and the final leg of this global literary journey will have to wait for another day.  However, the good news is that the next post you’ll see on the blog will bring our long-awaited Shadow Shortlist announcement.  Having begun our journey with an itinerary handed down by the official judges, this is the point where we strike out on our own.  Will our decision be similar to theirs?

I very much doubt it, but you’ll find out very soon 🙂

2 thoughts on “‘The Impostor’ by Javier Cercas (Review – MBIP 2018, Number 12)

  1. I like JC’s blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, as I found when I posted on Anatomy of a Moment – that iconic crisis in the Spanish parliament when it was briefly taken over by force by renegade military. Current events in Catalunya suggest the state doesn’t learn from past mistakes…


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