Book review: Outlaws by Javier Carcas

The spanish novelist has spent his career upending the liberal pieties of the post-Franco generation
June 18, 2014

The Spanish writer Javier Cercas made his reputation in 2001 with Soldiers of Salamis. The novel begins as a perfect postmodernist shaggy-dog story, in which Cercas skilfully muddles fact and fiction, casting doubt on the reliability of narrative, of truth itself. But by the end, the book steps away from postmodernism to reveal itself as a passionate affirmation of old-fashioned humane values. While Cercas has devoted his literary career to exploring moral ambiguity, he has also affirmed the possibility of heroism wherever it may be found—and not always among those who are seen as the good guys.

The novel’s protagonist is a failed writer (to whom Cercas gives his own name) who sets out to find the (fictitious) man who, in the closing days of the Spanish Civil War, spared the life of Rafael Sánchez Mazaz, one of the key architects of Spanish fascism. When Cercas-the-narrator finally tracks down the battered but fiercely alive ex-communist soldier he believes was Mazaz’s saviour, the book becomes an elegy for all the forgotten men who fought for what they believed in, not just those on the Republican side. As Jeremy Treglown says in his excellent recent book Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936, Cercas “dramatises… the connectedness of opposed sides in the Civil War.” Soldiers of Salamis brought this truth home to many Spaniards and to an international audience.

Cercas went on to explore the theme further in his non-fiction novel, The Anatomy of a Moment (2009), which also upends the leftist certainties of his generation. The “moment” of the title occurred in 1981, when a group of armed right-wing militants burst into the Spanish parliament, hoping to overthrow the fragile new democracy by force. Only three men stood up to them, rather than dropping to the floor, cowering. One was a member of the Spanish fascist party, the Falange; another had been one of Franco’s generals; and the third was a leader of the Communists. As Cercas writes: “Who could have predicted that the change from dictatorship to democracy in Spain would not be plotted by the democratic parties but by the Falangists and the communists, irreconcilable enemies of democracy and each other’s irreconciliable enemies during three years of war and 40 postwar years?”

In between those two books came a novel, The Speed of Light (2005), about another country’s war. It was also another book about trying to write a book, about the uncertain nature of truth. The narrator is a Spanish writer who, like Cercas, once taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana. He has struggled for years to write something about a Vietnam veteran he befriended during his time in America. Though there is no redemption for the soldier, who is tormented by the memory of the war crimes he committed, the narrator cannot wholly condemn him. By the time he finally manages to learn the American’s real story and wrestle his book into shape, he is too guilt-ridden about his own monstrously narcissistic behaviour following the global success of one of his novels (closely resembling Soldiers of Salamis) to go in for the harsh moral judgements he once made. “The horror lay in the war,” he says, “but long before that it lay in us.”

Now Cercas has dived into a different kind of moral murk, one unrelated to war but still part of his exploration of the aftermath of Franco’s long reign. The hero/anti-hero of Outlaws, his new novel, is a juvenile delinquent named Zarco, the leader of a teenage gang of thieves, who morphs into a full-blown criminal and becomes a celebrity in Spain. (He was perhaps loosely inspired by a Romany figure Spaniards called the Heifer, whose chaotic childhood, criminal antics and anti-establishment rhetoric made him a hero to certain segments of the public in the post-Franco years.) The story is told through a series of long interviews between an anonymous writer planning a book about Zarco and a lawyer called Cañas who, as a timid, geeky middle-class adolescent in the late 1970s, briefly stumbled into an involvement with Zarco’s gang.

The first half of the book consists of Cañas’s minutely detailed recollections of his time with the gang: his crush on Zarco’s elusive girlfriend Tere, his romanticisation of Zarco and fear of him, the bank heist and police ambush from which only he escaped unscathed. In the second half, Cañas recounts how, more than 20 years later, Tere suddenly shows up in his life again, asking him to get Zarco paroled. By this time Cañas has become a successful lawyer; his marriage has fallen apart, however, and he is increasingly plagued with a sense of the futility of his life. Zarco, meanwhile, has been repeatedly imprisoned for theft and assault. Since Cañas always wondered whether Zarco deliberately allowed him to escape the police ambush, and whether, by talking about the plans to rob the bank beforehand, he had unwittingly been responsible for the gang’s capture, he takes on the case. And since it gives him a renewed sense of purpose, he devotes himself to it single-mindedly. He also falls in love with Tere all over again, while she, as in their youth, refuses all commitment and remains an enigma to him.

With the aid of Tere and Zarco’s supposed fiancée, Cañas engineers a highly successful PR campaign to present Zarco as a Robin Hood figure and/or the victim of an inhumane system and a harrowing childhood. Meanwhile, he is gradually being forced to recognise that Zarco is incapable of behaving decently even to his supporters, and that, after his long years of incarceration, he is unable to cope with the prospect of freedom, despite his insistence that he be released. The image of a noble and misunderstood rebel that Cañas, Tere and Zarco’s would-be wife peddle so skilfully to the public begins to seem increasingly hollow; Zarco himself jeers at it as a sentimental fiction, preferring to accept the idea of his own evil. Yet again, Cercas is questioning the liberal pieties of his generation.

Outlaws has moments of undeniable dramatic power. Its depictions of both the miseries of the new urban underclass in the post-Franco years and the freakish media circus surrounding the campaign to get Zarco released ring true. But the ambiguities Cercas explored so effectively in some of his other books can devolve here into what feels like nit-picking: part of me felt this… part felt that; maybe she thought this… maybe she thought that; I’m not sure why he said that to me… there are three possible reasons; let me tell them to you. The interview format—really a series of long monologues by Cañas, interrupted by occasional questions from the writer—means that much of the immediacy is lost. The events Cañas describes lose their vividness through being so minutely dissected. Whereas in the closing section of Soldiers of Salamis Cercas’s characteristically long sentences achieve a passionate elegiac grandeur, here they can strike the reader as merely slack and stringy.

Even Cercas’s best books threaten to become wearisome when the writer-narrator starts playing meta-fictional games with the idea of truth and reality. But because the kinds of truth he is dealing with are so complex and momentous—the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s dictatorship, Vietnam—they at least seem worthy of such attention. In Outlaws, that is not always the case. At times, Cercas seems to be engaged in a desperate attempt to invest the events he’s describing with a significance that he can’t quite believe in. There are no heroes in this book, and for all its postmodernist wiles, Cercas’s finest work has always relied on heroes and high stakes to give it intensity. In their absence, we, like Cañas, are too often left floundering.