“The duty of art (or of thought) consists in showing us the complexity of existence in order to make us more complex, in examining the mechanics of evil, so that we may avoid it, and even the mechanics of good, perhaps so we may understand them”. This is Javier Cercas’ declaration of intent at the very start of his docu-novel The Impostor, an essayistic, often psychoanalytic, consistently intense and immediate chronicling and analysis of the ethics and the philosophy of truth and lying, of the purpose and value of fiction, of its abuse by the “kitsch-man” who is emblematic of our society, and of the “monstrous genius” under whose sway our civilisation seems to be relentlessly succumbing on a global scale.

The Impostor is the story of a “little man” of outrageous conceit and scandalous audacity. It is real because it truly happened, and a fiction because almost everything about the main character is a lie. Enric Marco, Cercas’ protagonist, is an unremarkable man whose thirst for notoriety (or for simple affirmation and existence) propelled him to a gigantic historical fraud, to the perpetration of a crime of memory, to polygamy, identity theft and the unscrupulous usurpation of trauma, victimhood and pain. Marco is guilty of no act of violence or material harm. Yet he is guilty of reducing the memory of the victims of the Holocaust in Spain, beyond Spain, to an illusory palimpsest where virtuality and truth become satanically blurred. Marco will claim to be a concentration camp survivor. He will work hard to educate Spanish children about the horrors of Nazi camps; he will be instrumental in rendering Memory, capitalised, central in Spanish conscience post-Franco. He will contribute to the public monumentalising and recognition of the suffering of Nazi victims, to the right to dignity of those who perished and those who remained, bearing scars both physical and unimaginable. His lie has this Machiavellian twist and pretext of goodness: by creating a counterfeit self-narrative, a fiction of martyrdom, a falsehood of suffering, a pseudo-memory, he has allowed for the reinstatement (so he will claim) of the infinitely more horrific truth.

Spanish writers these days seem a bit unsubstantial, not to say chicken: they don’t write from their gut, they write what they think they should write, what they think will please the critics.”

Writing about Marco is a triple challenge for Cercas. It is, first of all, an existential one: how does one stop from being an impostor of one’s life? It is also, quite critically, a moral one: is it right to give narrative space, narrative voice, and therefore fictional or real legitimacy to an impostor? How does one assess an impostor of trauma, of the Holocaust, of a memory that stands for one of the most vital clashes between good and evil? Finally it is a stylistic one, a questioning of the very validity and raison d’être of fiction, of the literary act: “Spanish writers these days seem a bit unsubstantial, not to say chicken: they don’t write from their gut, they write what they think they should write, what they think will please the critics, and the result is that they never get past style and snobbery.” The crisis of the man of letters in a nutshell.

Portrait of Enric Marco © Consuelo Bautista. Read more

For Cercas, the challenge is indeed visceral, personal, supremely existential and inevitable. By taking it on, he will have to grapple with his own integrity, the limits of his language, the structures of his thought, the history of Spain and Catalonia, the laws regarding memory, private and public, that made democracy possible and viable, so it was claimed, after its restitution following Franco’s death. Marco has said that his account had been a “deformed biography, which does not conform to reality” in an interview with TV3 Barcelona, it was only a “half-lie”. “All I have done is change the scenario.” Cercas makes it his task to retrieve the original scenario not only of Marco but of a vast spectrum of Spanish conscience – and of the innermost recesses of his own.

It is not the first time Cercas has used a fictionalisation of himself as an investigator of historical truth and falsehood. In Soldiers of Salamina he targeted, once again, the Law of Historical Memory, the “pact of forgetting” that was tacitly or publicly signed to counter the sense of an unsurmountable historical moral debt. What he seeks through this foil of himself are “novels of adventures and the adventures of novels” that will lead to truth, to the catharsis of guilt and to a moral complexity that will redeem both horror and life. “Marco is a tool to speak of all of us” and in that sense he is a fiction that serves the highest purpose of reality. He is also real, and therefore raises the ethical question of “what it means for me, morally, to strip down the veils of another man’s life.” He is also a superb human curiosity. Marco, Cercas says in an interview on RTVE, is an “histrión genial”, a theatrical genius, a “Picasso of lies.”

This is a very rich text, a true textile of interlinked threads of thought, of history and of stories, and Cercas’ prose has the gushing flow of an author liberated from writer’s block thanks to analysis.”

Marco claimed he fabricated the camp story “not out of egotism, but generosity, not out of vanity, but altruism, to educate younger generations about the horrors, to unearth the historical memory of this amnesiac country.” One is reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s mantra that “if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten” or even Karen Blixen’s elegy to pain: “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” It is a devilish device, a supreme sophism, and it will drive Cercas to near-obsession. He will fight the shadows of his novel-chronicle vehemently, until the shadows become blinding light: only if the true story of Marco’s lies is written will the pain of victims, the horrors of their suffering cease, in that their place in history, in memory, will regain its reality.

This is a very rich text, a true textile of interlinked threads of thought, of history and of stories, and Cercas’ prose has the gushing flow of an author liberated from writer’s block thanks to analysis – a process that receives several prominent allusions, in jest and in earnest, throughout. His is a determination to declare, to articulate and to verbalise, that in this case matches the terrifying narratology of his subject. This double tension of a story-tap of clear water turned full-flow and of a mythomaniac’s torrent that carries away both the genuine and the deceitful in an ultimate surge that leaves little in its place, helps to enhance the precarious humanity involved, the immensity of the dilemma, the inevitable minuteness required of anyone who attempts to judge or weigh another’s life on the scale of right and wrong, good and evil, pure and corrupt, of the sane (the sanity of our world) and the deranged (once again, our world).

Cercas often and unexpectedly lifts the curtain on his own life, creating stark contrasts with Marco’s exhibitionist, fabricated flirtation with publicity. A comically dark side emerges, a parallel to Marco’s more forthright, sinister ambiguity. Behind the private lies another public darkness, the Spanish Civil War, in all its tragedy, insanity, and its sense of a diabolical puppet theatre. As chronicle, mythography, investigation and personal narrative fuse, a shocking juxtaposition emerges between the skilled analysis of historians and the horror of reality. The tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, the Holocaust, does not end with the atrocity of the events. Dispossession of facts, most importantly the dispossession of trauma and pain, the usurping of the right to the experience, memory and narrative of suffering, as well as the kitschified popularisation of the stories or their clinical exposition, Cercas powerfully argues, are the next circles of Hell.

It took decades for the true victims, those who lived through every experience of these events, to be able to put words back into place, to accept them as bridges in a world of amputated humanity. In the meantime, the unbearable silence became easy prey to opportunists of memory or amnesia, to those who needed a whitewashing purging, to mythomaniacs craving part of the action, or to those others whom both horror and evil simply passed by. Somehow doubly alienated, some felt an almost physical compulsion to claim a role they never had, for better or for worse.

The silencing of horror will breed fictions. The falsifying fictions of deniers and manipulators, and the more complex existential falsehoods of Marco.”

By identifying and piecing together Marco’s lies, Cercas is also retrieving the true narrative of the people and events whose reality Marco had appropriated or used as a frame for his own fabrication. Exposing this spree of purloined identity also leaves bare the responsibility of both actors and bystanders with regard to memory and reality. It is equally an accusation against not only the falsification but also the artifice of monumentalisation and the flattening revisionism and blindness that ensue, “the great craze of historical memory.”

The silencing of horror will breed fictions. The falsifying fictions of deniers and manipulators, and the more complex existential falsehoods of Marco, of people who in a violent act of self-writing, force themselves into the position they failed to occupy in reality, from an almost megalomaniac will and angst to be someone. Or as an act of despair, so that the real may not slip away. Cercas leads his story through every tribulation and turn, past inhibitions and precautions, to its thundering conclusion: evil needs to be explained, accounted for, or it will fester and breed in ever more monstrous forms. Truth and lying for Cercas are instinctive reactions but they are also philosophical categories, from Plato’s noble lie to Voltaire’s necessary, beneficial falsehood, Picasso’s claim that “art is a lie that helps us see the truth”, Montaigne’s altruistic lies, or Oscar Wilde’s aesthete adoration of artifice as “the telling of beautiful untrue things.” Contra Kant, Cercas knows there can be relativity to truth, yet warns unflinchingly against kitsch: “first and foremost it is an artistic term that implies a debasement – or at least a significant devaluation of genuine art; but it is also a negation… behind a façade of sentimentalism, superficial beauty, and affected virtue.” Marco’s crime is the crime of historical kitsch, his contribution to the “industry of memory” that permits the existence and ascendancy of mass-deceivers throughout history. His most reprehensible offence was perhaps precisely this assault on what is most honourable in our humanity, by tainting it with his ersatz creations: our yearning for authentic experience, for a mediation, by means of words, stories, narratives, with trauma, pain and human despair. Cercas will write no less than 400 pages’ worth of such mediation with the struggle to be, the truth of Marco’s lies, the uncomfortable reality of our own complacency or brittle-thin perseverance with historical truth and the debt to remembrance. It is a long, indignant, philosophical and vital diatribe on literary invention and real-life lying; on the limits of our assumption that there can be objective observers, and that chroniclers are guiltless. The Impostor is fiction dealing with the value of history; and it is a history about the vital value of fiction as a guarantor of reality.


Javier_Cercas_290Javier Cercas was born in Ibahernando, Cáceres in 1962. He is a novelist, short-story writer and columnist, whose books, translated into more than twenty languages, include Soldiers of Salamis, The Tenant and The Motive, The Speed of Light and The Anatomy of a Moment. He lives in Barcelona and teaches Spanish Literature at the University of Girona. The Impostor, translated by Frank Wynne, is published by MacLehose Press in hardback and eBook. Read more

Author portrait © Sonia Balcells

Frank Wynne is a translator from French and Spanish. His early translated works include Atomised by Michel Houellebecq, which won the 2002 IMPAC Prize, and Windows on the World by Frédéric Beigbeder which won the 2005 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. His recent translations include Pierre Lemaître’s Three Days and a Life and Blood Wedding, Marie-Sabine Roger’s Get Well Soon and Soft in the Head, Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex and Tomás González’ In the Beginning Was the Sea.

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.