The Impostor by Javier Cercas


It is said that a book must be at least 350 pages long to stop a bullet — a discovery made by British volunteers during the Spanish Civil War who defended Madrid University behind barricades of the thickest books they could find (19th-century German philosophy, it seems). When I first read Javier Cercas, I had the eerie feeling his work was intended for just this purpose. In scope and size (most comfortably meet that 350-page standard), his novels are interventions. They stand between readers and what Cercas considers the gravest threats to us: the misapprehension and cynical use of the past. “He who controls the past, controls the present and the future,” Cercas writes in his new book, “The Impostor,” longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.

“The Impostor,” a work of nonfiction, is the history of an ugly and wildly successful lie. For three decades, Enric Marco, a Catalan mechanic, was a prominent public face of Spanish survivors of the Holocaust — president of a survivors’ association, the recipient of a number of awards and distinctions. He spoke at Parliament and frequently visited schools, well into his 80s, to tearfully recall his time at the Flossenbürg concentration camp; the torture and killings he witnessed; his eight months of solitary confinement.

In 2005, the story was revealed to be a hoax. In the national uproar, some newspapers called for Marco to take his own life.

Cercas was appropriately scandalized, calling Marco “this shameless con artist, this out-and-out liar, this utter scoundrel.” The author’s moral horror was matched only by his physical disgust for the “swarthy, balding, thickset, burly, mustachioed gnome.” (Garlands of epithets are a Cercas specialty; one more: “manipulative, obsequious, utterly unscrupulous parasite.”) He was repulsed by the glibness of Marco’s rationalizations and their sheer number: So what if he embellished a little here and there, went a typical Marco plea, it was for a noble cause — “to educate younger generations about the horrors.” Anyway, he wasn’t really lying — everything he reported did happen, just not to him. Aren’t there bigger sinners out there? What about Kissinger?

Washburn Library