The Impostor – Javier Cercas (translated by Frank Wynne)

Imposter

One of the most obvious artificial devices of the storyteller is the trick of going beneath the surface of the action to obtain a reliable view of a character’s mind and heart.
-Wayne C. Booth “The Rhetoric of Fiction” (p3)

In Javier Cercas’ “The Impostor”, there are really only two characters at play, the author and Enric Marco, a true impostor. The challenge for Javier Cercas is to give the reader a reliable view of his own mind and heart as well as the mind and heart of a man whose claims that he was a prisoner in a Nazi German concentration camp during World War II were exposed in 2005.

I had chosen literature so that I could have a life that was free, happy and authentic whereas actually my life was false, servile and unhappy, that I was a guy who pretended to be a novelist, and succeeded by deceiving and cheating people; in reality I was nothing more than an impostor. (p15)

Of course, we have fringe players who move in and out of the action, for example, people Javier Cercas interviews, the historian, Benito Bermejo who uncovered Enric Marco, however this is essentially a non-fiction fiction about the writer’s struggle to identify the true Enric Marco and the personal struggle that the author goes through wrestling with his own demons, should he write the book we are reading?

Thought and art, I believed, attempt to explore what we are, revealing our endless, ambiguous and contradictory variety, and in doing so, mapping out our nature: Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, I thought, illuminated every nook and cranny of the moral maze, demonstrate that love can lead to murder or suicide, and succeed in making us feel compassion for psychopaths and bastards; it is its duty, I thought, because 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. (p18)

Using this unique literary device, where we are told the story of Enric and then the investigations into the merits of such, Javier Cercas is presenting a story that works on numerous sub-levels. The nature of truth, the motivation to lie, the creation of false identities, the eternal search for who we really are.

For some time now, psychology has maintained that we can barely live without lying, that man is an animal that lies: life in society demands a measure of falsehood that we call politeness (and which only hypocrites mistake for hypocrisy); Marco horribly exaggerated and distorted this basic human need. In this sense, he is like Don Quixote, or like Emma Bovary, two other great liars who, like Marco, cannot reconcile themselves to the greyness of their real lives and so invent and live out fictitious, heroic lives; in this sense there is something in Marco’s fate that profoundly touches us all, as there is in those of Quixote and Bovary: all of us play a role; all of us are other than we are; in some way, we are Enric Marco. (p41)

The Wayne C. Booth text that I quoted above, goes on to explain the importance of “showing” the reader, not “telling” the reader, I purposely chose the reference to “The Rhetoric of Fiction” as Javier Cercas’s book tells throughout, it is self-described as “a novel without fiction”. Using repetition, with subtle changes, the question of memory is brought into play, what is the truth, what is the essential truth?

Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” is referenced a number of times and you cannot help but wonder if through the exercise of writing this book, is Javier Cercas damning himself as Truman Capote did?

As well as a character study, following Enric Marco’s life, attempting to understand his motivations to become the great “impostor”, this is also a sociological study, a reflection on Spain pre and post Franco. Post Franco it becomes a nation where everybody has an invented past, surely now Franco has gone everybody was in opposition to him, which means the nation itself is a collective lie.

Personally, I learned a lot about Spanish history, the Civil War, post War dynamics, Spanish politics and the various factions at play, the “non-fiction fiction” really leading me to places I had previously not discovered. I am sure the information I have learned here will be extremely useful with other Spanish works, Antonio Muñoz Molina’s “In The Night Of Time” (translated by Edith Grossman) would have been a much richer read if I had read this book first, I’m wondering if this background will help me with Antonio Muñoz Molina’s latest “Like A Fading Shadow” (translated by Camilo A. Ramirez).

The book can play as an overly long lecture about a character and his motivations, and therefore the emotional connection is lost. Here is a character who you couldn’t care for, he is not an anti-hero, simply a manipulator who looked after himself, a Narcissist. Where is the interest in learning about this leading character, he is not the ideal candidate for a starring role.

Calling into question the fad that became “historical memory”, the fact that it actually was included in Spanish Law and then became a marketing tool, Javier Cercas expertly points out the absurdity of “historical memory”:

This is how things were, at least in the early stages of our relationship: Marco both wanted and did not want me to write about him and therefore he wanted and did not want to talk to me. Or to put it more clearly: Marco wanted me to write the book that he would have wanted to read, the book that he needed, the book that would finally rehabilitate him. (p323)

Here I need to point out one error in the book that really played on my mind. This error not only appears on page 129, I am also stunned that it appears in the official blurbs for the book (check Book Depository or Goodreads – this is a direct quote from the blurb);

By the time he is unmasked in Austria in 2005 on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp

In 2005 it was the SIXTEITH Anniversary of the liberation of the camp, and I can assure you, this is no minor error. When you are reading a book that is questioning historical truths, when it talks about stories containing mistakes and inaccuracies on purpose to put you off the scent, I thought for some time that this error was put there on purpose. This was playing on my mind so much I have had someone check the Spanish version to see if it said 60th or 70th, and the original text says “60th anniversary” so it is either a translation or editing error. The Spanish for “sixty” is “sesenta” for “seventy” it is “setenta”, one letter difference, but when talking about a significant historical date, ten years is a decent error. The date of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps are significant in world history. Put simply, this error is lazy.

Add to this a number of typo’s, or translation errors;

P267 “an magnificent actor”
P305 “as part of a homage” (everything else is English so why suddenly the Americanisation here?)

To name just two. I would also like to draw your attention to these few sentences;

I am looking at a photograph of one of the annual reunions of former prisoners of Flossenbűrg. The picture shows all the survivors who were still alive when the reunion took place, or all the survivors who were still alive and could or wished to attend. (pp265-6)

What garbled nonsense? We are looking at a photo, there are no dead people, no need to tell us they’re alive, and in attendance, overstated, simply not required.

I must admit I really struggled with this book, although presenting important historical reflections and using a unique style and manner to bring a story to life, the errors and the repetitiveness started to wear a little thin.

“Like I said, the duty of the novelist is to get people to believe that everything he says is true, even though it is a lie. For God’s sake, do I have to repeat what Gorgias said four hundred years before Christ? ‘Poetry [that is to say fiction, in this case the novel] is a deception, wherein he who deceives is more honest that he who does not deceive, and he who is deceived is wiser than he who is not deceived.’ It’s all there. Do you understand now? I don’t have anything more to add.” (p354)

If the mandate of the Man Booker International Prize is to award the best translation of the year, then I have to say this book should be not make the shortlist. With the massive glaring error that I have pointed out (one the publisher is using to publicise the book!!!) it cannot be celebrated as the best book of the year, unless mediocre, average, sloppy work is to be rewarded.

Interesting and educational but overly long, this isn’t one for my “top six” translated books of 2017. I’m sure the official judges, and possibly the Shadow Jury, will disagree.

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9 thoughts on “The Impostor – Javier Cercas (translated by Frank Wynne)

      • I’ve got a request pending in Library Link Victoria (I think Glen Eira isn’t part of my local library’s consortium). Nothing for this or the Ybarra in our group of libraries. I sent out an email re: the Ybarra and got a very snooty reply back that basically said ‘who do you think you are daring to ask for books from RHP?’.

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      • Funnily enough Glen Eira has at least six titles this year (I own four so didn’t search for them) & Ybarra is one they have. I have it on order – how dare somebody else read it?

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  1. I got everything else fairly easily. Currently reading the Ransmayr (in German) as the last of the eleven I had 🙂

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      • I don’t know. I was sent the proof copy of Frankenstein and read a bit of it but found there were some really clunky bits in it. Now I’m reading the published version which is better, but still not great…

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