Book Review - The Impostor

by Javier Cercas

Translated by Frank Wynne


Enric Marco passed himself off as a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, a Republican deportee to Nazi Germany and a survivor of Flossenburg concentration camp. For almost three decades, he visited schools, gave lectures and wrote papers about his fictitious experiences. Most damningly, he served as president of the Amical De Mauthausen, the Spanish association of Nazi victims, despite never having set foot in a concentration camp. The reality is that he went to Germany as a volunteer worker in late 1941 to avoid military service; Spain provided Germany with cheap manpower as part of an accord enabling Franco to repay Hitler for his aid during the civil war. Although Marco was incarcerated for a short time, it was in an ordinary prison.

After being unmasked by historian Benito Bermejo in 2005, Marco was widely condemned as a charlatan and liar. The worldwide furore that ensued immediately piqued the interest of the novelist Javier Cercas. He was encouraged to write about Marco by the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, who said: “Marco is one of your characters! You have to write about him!” But Cercas wrestled with his conscience for seven years before deciding to investigate. One of his fears was that by writing about Marco he might begin to understand, and therefore justify, his behaviour.

Cercas calls The Impostor “a novel without fiction” and, early on, draws parallels between Marco’s tale and that of Cervantes’ hero Don Quixote. An ordinary hidalgo (nobleman), Alonso Quixano yearns to perform chivalrous deeds. Reinventing himself as Don Quixote, he allows his imagination to triumph over reality.

Like Quixote, Marco achieved mythical status. Cercas reveals an ordinary man who, from an early age, was desperate to be loved. Marco changed his date of birth (by two days) to 14 April 1921 so he could claim to have been born “exactly ten years before the declaration of the Second Spanish Republic”. He was born in an insane asylum and his mother was abandoned there. His father and step-mother had little time for him and “for most of his childhood he could not shrug off the mortifying sense that he was not wanted anywhere.”

The reason Marco got away with his “tissue of lies” for so long, Cercas suggests, is tied up with Spain’s own inability to confront the horrors of the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship. After the war, Cercas claims no one wanted to talk about it, least of all those who had been defeated: “the vast majority of Spaniards ... meekly accepted the dictatorship.” Marco recognised that “he who controls the past, controls the present and the future.” Ironically, he advocated the recovery of historical memory, while rewriting his own.

The Impostor, seamlessly translated by Frank Wynne, is a fascinating analysis of a nation in denial. Just as Germany was unable to truthfully confront its Nazi past in the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s death, Cercas suggests, Spain could only begin to look into the horrors of Franco’s reign 25 years after his death. Marco played into this, aware that “no one dares to question the authority of the victim, no one dares question the authority of the witness.”

Cercas took his time writing The Impostor – it’s a little woolly in the middle and there is some unnecessary repetition. But by going over Marco’s story repeatedly, adding new details, embellishing existing ones, Cercas illustrates how Marco embedded his heroic persona into a society’s consciousness. This is the story of a fraudster and a profound meditation on the legacy of Spain’s civil war. Cercas was clearly nervous about writing it and his conclusion is damning: “Marco reinvented his life at a moment when the entire country was reinventing itself ... during the transition from dictatorship ... with Franco dead, almost everyone began to construct a past to better face the present and prepare for the future.”

Originally published in New Humanist