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Javier Cercas: El Impostor (The Impostor)

Javier Cercas has made a speciality out of writing novels about actual events and characters. He calls them, at least in this book, novelas sin ficción [novels without fiction]. This novel is no exception – as the title implies, it is about an impostor, in this case about the very real Enric Marco. However, as this is a novel, it is about other things, including about Cercas himself and his attempts to write this novel, the points of view of others who have written about (and filmed) Marco and, in particular, about the moral, social and even philosophical implications of Marco’s actions. Marco’s story was straightforward. He claimed to have fled Spain during the Spanish Civil War and gone to France. There he had been arrested by the Gestapo and sent off to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp and then to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he had spent the rest of the war. On return to Spain, he had belonged to the Amical de Mauthausen, an organisation concerned with Spanish survivors of German concentration camps, and had been chair of the organisation for three years. He had put considerable efforts into protecting and promoting the right of Spanish concentration survivors and had been recognised for this effort. Just prior to the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Matthausen, an obscure Spanish historian, Benito Bermejo, revealed that Marco had never been in a concentration camp. He had been a Francoist, had gone to Germany as a volunteer worker and had been imprisoned in an ordinary prison in Kiel for unspecified misdemeanours and then sent back to Spain. Marco, by now in his eighties, admitted what he had done.

Cercas had been mulling over the idea of writing Marco’s story in a novela sin ficción [novel without fiction] for some time and we get a detailed explanation of why he hesitated and went on to write other books instead. Indeed, he had three other ideas (which he tells us) which he also struggled with. Indeed, the agonising over this caused him so much stress that his wife insisted that he see a psychiatrist, which he did. Two meals are key to his decision about writing the book. The first meal was with various people he knew who might have had come into contact with Marco. These included his sister, Blanca, who knew Marcos as they had been on a parents’ committee together. They agonised over the idea that Cercas had had, of writing about Marco to try and understand him. They put forward the point of view that trying to understand him was equivalent to justifying his actions. Another meal was even more influential. After Marco’s deception was revealed, several people wrote articles about him in the press, generally condemning him. However, one writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, said that Marco’s invention put him among the group of story-tellers, of which he, Vargas Llosa, was, of course, one. Some time afterwards, Cercas and others were dining at Vargas Llosa’s house in Madrid, and Vargas Llosa said that he, Cercas, should write about him. Cercas then commented Es como si todos tuviésemos algo de Marco.. Como si todos fuésemos un poco impostores. [It is as if we all had something of Marco. As if we were all, to some degree, impostors]. To this, his friend, the writer, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, Yes, particularly you. Cercas is so horrified by this statement – that he might be an impostor – that he decided to give up writing the novel. Of course, we know he changed his mind and part of what caused him to change his mind is the story of this novel.

As he does finally decide to write the novel, we learn a lot more about Marco. Cercas goes to meets him, together with a film-maker who has already filmed him, and learns much about him. (The film-maker, incidentally, who is Argentinian, says contemporary Spanish writers are insubstantial and only concerned about getting good publicity and not about writing about the important issues.) Though inclined to condemn Marco, Cercas accepts that some interesting moral questions are raised. Marco worked very hard as chair of the Amical group and has done a lot to bring the plight of the concentration camp survivors to the attention of the public and the authorities and their lot has certainly improved since then. Should this not be recognised and should he not be given credit for it? His motives were honourable, in that he was not trying to enrich himself but help the camp survivors. His lie was not entirely false. He did, after all spend some time in a Nazi prison, albeit not a concentration camp. Marco is compared to Don Quixote, an imaginative man who wanted to escape his humdrum life. However, Cercas states that every lie needs a bit of truth and Marco’s lie did have some truth, namely that he spent some time in a German prison.

We learn about Marco’s upbringing. He was the illegitimate son of a woman who spent much of her adult life in an asylum. Marco was brought up by various people, including, to some degree, by his father. Indeed, he said that he had seen his father shot during the Spanish Civil War. The problem is that this appears to be another of his fantasies, as it cannot be verified. Indeed, we know he told other lies, such as the date of his birth. Meanwhile, Javier again abandons the idea of writing the book and again he decides to take it back on. It is now four years since he met Marco, who must be now over ninety. Javier thinks he might be dead but he is still very much alive. (At the time of writing this review – end of 2014 – he is still alive.) He contacts him and he agrees not only to discuss his story but to be filmed (by Javier’s son). We learn first about his Civil War career in which, according to him, he distinguished himself, finally escaping Spain in 1940, as he was afraid he was about to be arrested for his involvement in anti-Franco activities. Javier spends a lot of time and energy tracking down both witnesses and documentary sources to corroborate or disprove Marco’s story. Initially, he has limited success with both. There seems to be little evidence that Marco did all the things that he claimed but, equally, little evidence to disprove this. He finally finds a scrap of evidence that partially proves one of his stories but, at the same time, manages to get Marco to confess to some exaggerations. There are two stories of how he came to be in Germany. The first was the original story and the second the revised story once he had been found out. Javier discusses the various pieces of information he gets with his wife and son and with others and all of them are unsure just how much is true. The point is very much made that the best liars often lace their stories with some truth and this may well be the case with Marco.

All the while, writing this tale, Javier struggles with one of his favourite themes, the boundary between truth and untruth. Was he telling the true story of Marco? Was this possible? If it was possible, could he tell the story without lying himself? He compared Marco to Don Quixote but his son points out that no-one believed Don Quixote while, initially at least, most people believed Marco and some still did. Marco vive en un mundo de fantasía, más interesante y más divertido que la realidad [Marco lives in a world of fantasy, which is more interesting and more amusing than reality] is his explanation for Marco’s inventions. Javier faces another issue. He finds out that, contrary to what most people, including Marco’s current wife, have thought, Marco was married not twice, as he claimed, but three times, and he had a child from the missing marriage. Should he reveal this and thereby risk hurting Dani, Marco’s current wife, and his children? And when he find out that Marco may have been a government informer, should he reveal this, not least because he has no real proof, only considerable circumstantial evidence and the views of others, who thought he was an informer? Javier continues to struggle with the moral issues.

There are four main stages in Marco’s life, before discovery of his falsehood: the Spanish Civil War period, his time in Germany, the period after his return to Spain, when he led a fairly conventional life, and the post-Franco period. Marco clearly invented much during all four periods though, of course, his inventions primarily covered the first two periods. Javier investigates all four periods in considerable detail, both in long conversations with Marco (filmed by Raúl, Javier’s son) and with his own research and the research of others who help him or who have relevant information. His detective work is both fascinating, to us the readers, and very clever. We must assume that it is all true though Marco, at least, towards the end of the book, does challenge Javier’s veracity, arguing that Javier is mainly interested in lining his pocket with the proceeds of a successful book and not, as Marco would like, justifying Marco’s action or, as Javier himself claims, saving Marco, by which he means giving him a chance to confess his lies (and not just the lies about Flossenbürg). Indeed, he partially succeeds, as Marco does admit to some of the lies, particularly those concerning the Civil War, though refuses to admit to all of them. Indeed, he pleads with Javier to at least leave him something, which Javier eventually does.

Javier manages to cover pretty well every angle you could think of in this story. He examines Marco’s story and Marco’s motives. However, he also examines his own motives (on many occasions) and his role as a writer and an inventor of stories. He tries to find out not only what Marco’s lies are but what actually happened during those periods Marco lied about. Some of them baffle him. How did Marco manage to rise, in a relatively short space of time, to the top of three separate organisations (the CNT, the formerly illegal anarchist trade union organisation), the FAPAC (the parents’ organisation) and Amical de Matthausen (the concentration camp survivors’ organisation), none of which he had any contact with beforehand? Javier has no explanation. However, he manages to find out in many cases, how Marco became involved in the various activities he became involved in and the various lies he told and who he convinced and how. He looks at the larger picture, such as the revival in what has been called historical memory in Spain (there is even a law on it, which Javier writes about) and how others have dealt with writing a novel without fiction, such as Truman Capote and Emmanuel Carrère. He examines the reasons for such an interest in Spain and elsewhere in in Europe. He looks at other fake Holocaust accounts. He discusses Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which Wikipedia translates as the struggle to come to terms with the past. In short, there seems to be few aspects he has not considered. What, ultimately, were Marco’s motives? Was he, like Javier Cercas, writing a novel, with, of course, the difference, that when Cercas invented or wrote about a hero, he kept it to a book, with rules that the rest of us understand and accept, while Marco took it into real life, where the rules are very different from literature? Or was he just a publicity hound, which is why he agreed to help Javier Cercas? By letting Javier Cercas, a well-known Spanish author, write about him, his name would carry on and he would remain in the spotlight, even if the publicity was not exactly positive. The book ends with Javier and Raúl going to Flossenbürg, where they find a copy of the register of inmates. They knew that Marco had assumed the number (and thus the identity) of another Spanish prisoner, presumably long since dead, called Enric Moner. However, when they check the register, it is clearly marked not Enric Moner but Enric Marco. Had he been in Flossenbürg after all? Fortunately, this is one case where Javier Cercas is able to give us a clear-cut explanation.

I could write a lot more about this book, as it is long and very detailed. In particular, Javier Cercas examines every moral, philosophical, historical, psychological and social conundrum you can possibly think of associated with this case. He examines Marco’s story in considerable detail and gives long explanations of why he thinks Marco is lying (and, where relevant, why and where he is not lying), backed by the facts he (or someone else) has dug up, and analogies. It has taken up a significant part of his life during a fairly long period. The result, there is no doubt in my mind, is a brilliant work, which will help keep Javier Cercas at the forefront of contemporary Spanish novelists.

Publishing history

First published in 2014 by Random House
First English translation by Maclehose in 2017
Translated by Frank Wynne