Book Review: The Impostor

March 9, 2019

Cercas_Impostor_CoverJavier Cercas, The Impostor. Translation Frank Wynne. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. 384 pp.

Reviewed by Sara J. Brenneis

Books by Javier Cercas are reliably at least partially about Javier Cercas. In Soldiers of Salamis and The Anatomy of a Moment, Cercas centered stories rooted in periods of deep historical value to Spain in his own quest to know the truth. So it is with The Impostor in which Cercas plays the intrepid but conflicted journalist/novelist, following every lead and interviewing every player as he dismantles, piece by piece, the scaffold of lies Enric Marco constructed to pass himself off as a Nazi concentration camp survivor for almost 30 years. But while Marco’s face may appear, blurred, on the cover of this “novel without fiction,” it is Cercas who assumes the book’s lead role. Is Enric Marco the impostor, or is Javier Cercas the impostor for writing about Marco? Cercas hammers the reader over the head with this quandary from the first page. By the end, when Enric Marco has been fully unmasked as a fraud, a charlatan, a narcissistic nonagenarian, Cercas is still wearing his mask, leaving us to wonder what exactly our author was trying to achieve.

But first, Enric Marco. The antihero of this book is indeed a compelling figure. Steeped in the anarchist tradition of the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) in Barcelona during the early 1930s, Marco fought with the 3rd Battalion of the 121st Brigade of the 26th Division, the “Durruti Column,” in the Spanish Civil War. On this point, as Cercas proves by unearthing a contemporaneous newspaper report confirming Marco’s military credentials, there can be no doubt. But everything Marco did after leaving the front lines is hazy. Was he a clandestine resistance fighter against Franco, or was he one of many who accepted the regime, a blue-collar worker under the thumb of the dictator? Was he arrested, deported, and sent to the Nazi concentration camp of Flossenbürg, or did he volunteer to work in Germany during World War II and wind up in a Nazi prison in Kiel? Did he return to Spain to continue the fight, or to invent a past that would allow him to burnish his image, to become the center of attention in a newly-democratic Spain? Was he a family man, or did he abandon his relatives in order to rebrand himself? Cercas takes us through the twists and turns of Marco’s life story separating the truth from the lies. Along the way, readers are treated to an entertaining micro-history of the Spanish Civil War, Spanish-German relations during World War II, daily life in dictatorship Barcelona, and the Spanish transition to democracy.

Based on his invented credentials, Marco rose through the ranks of the CNT after Franco’s death, becoming secretary general during its tumultuous regeneration in the 1970s. He entered the political fray during a thrilling moment in Spain’s history when everything old was new again, and Marco, in Cercas’ analysis, wanted a piece of the action, wanted to be on the front page. He crafted his fictitious time in Flossenbürg in 1978, but it was toward the beginning of the 2000s when the story really took hold. Marco joined the Amical de Mauthausen — the Barcelona-based association of Spanish and Catalan survivors of Nazi camps — in 2001. He began to speak about his imagined harrowing passage through the Nazi camp, insinuating himself into annual meetings of Flossenbürg survivors. By 2003, he was president of the Amical, thrilling audiences with his tales of fortitude in the face of Nazi evil.

In 2005, Marco was unmasked. Benito Bermejo — historian of the deportation and the real author of Marco’s fall from grace — alerted the Amical, providing evidence of the inaccuracy of Marco’s claims. The downfall was swift: Marco was stripped of his Amical responsibilities, ostracized by former colleagues and friends, and eviscerated in the Spanish media. Nevertheless, he continued (and, as of this writing, continues) to defend himself arguing that in his own way, he made the history of the Spanish deportation accessible and real to a new generation of Spaniards.

Cercas, however, waffles incessantly about his feelings toward Marco. On the one hand, he writes, Marco is Alonso Quijano, tilting at windmills like Don Quijote, harmlessly wrapped up in his own fantasy. Cercas reasons that Marco is no better than the rest of Spain, a country not of heroes but of impostors who collaborated with the Franco regime, “a reality that they tried to hide or mask or embellish just as Marco hid or masked or embellished his.” On the other hand, he did something no one else seemed capable of doing, becoming “a rock star of historical memory,” drawing the Spanish public’s attention toward the hundreds of thousands who had suffered exile, deportation, incarceration and, in some cases, death during and after World War II. Of course, Marco built this media campaign on the backs of those who really were antifascist resistors and who really did suffer and die in Nazi concentration camps, unlike him.

Cercas also wavers on whether he should even write this book. It feels disingenuous when, halfway through The Impostor, Cercas is still not sure if he should polish Marco’s star with the book that we are now reading, which has, moreover, been translated into English with the express purpose of reaching ever larger audiences, making Marco’s story even more well known, or let Marco slip into oblivion. In a bout of narcissistic self-involvement, Cercas dedicates an entire chapter to an invented conversation between him and Marco. In it, the author anticipates every criticism the reader might throw his way for writing this book, for making sure that Marco will be remembered in perpetuity as the subject of a famous Spanish novelist’s fanciful biography.

There are true heroes in this book, but Marco and Cercas are not among them. They are the Spanish deportees themselves — the real ones — who gave their lives and livelihoods in exchange for no glory, no fame, and in most cases no stake whatsoever in Spain’s historical memory vogue. They are Bermejo, Montserrat Roig, Rosa Toran — tireless advocates for the legacy of the Spanish victims of the Nazis. Herein lies the other book Cercas could have written, the one that would have brought the real history of the Spanish deportation into the limelight, listing the names (Cercas loves to list names) of the survivors along with those who died knowing the horrible reality of a Nazi concentration camp.

But Cercas has opted to write this book instead, which is his prerogative as an author. It’s a fascinating story, to be sure, but it would have been equally engaging, in this age of fake news, lies, and innuendo, if Cercas could have demonstrated this other Spain, the one that did not collaborate with the dictator, that looked fascism in the eye and didn’t blink. After all, these are the individuals who merit, as Cercas puts it, “honor to the heroes.”

Sara J. Brenneis is an Associate Professor of Spanish at Amherst College and the author most recently of Spaniards in Mauthausen: Representations of a Nazi Concentration Camp 1940-2015 (University of Toronto Press, 2018).