- - Wednesday, October 3, 2018


 By Javier Cercas

 Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95, 384 pages

Like most Catalonian working-class men in 1930s, Enric Marco was an anarchist, and fought with the Republicans against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

The war ended with the establishment of the Franco dictatorship in 1939. Hitler had helped fund it, and in 1941 Mr. Marco volunteered to work in Germany under an agreement allowing Spain to pay off this debt by providing workers for German factories.

Of course, this helped fascists like those Mr. Marco had fought against, but it enabled him to avoid military service and earn more than he could in Spain. “It’s that simple,” writes Javier Cercas, who traces Mr. Marco’s life in “The Impostor.”

In Germany, Mr. Marco worked in Kiel, and was briefly jailed there. By 1943 he was back in Barcelona. A metal worker-turned-car mechanic, he gradually worked his way out of poverty, eventually owning his own repair shop, living in a middle-class neighborhood, and educating himself by reading and finally going to university.

He was hard-working, articulate, personable, charming, helpful, well-liked. This helps explain how he managed to head up three significant organizations after Franco’s death in 1975. First, he ran the CNT, the famed anarchist union forbidden during the dictatorship. Next, he moved on to a national consortium of parent-teacher organizations.

Finally, he took charge of the Amical de Mauthausen, representing the thousands of Spaniards incarcerated in Mauthausen and other German concentration camps.

Mr. Marco worked tirelessly, happily addressing conferences and student groups about his experiences. To hear him tell it, he had been an anarchist activist not only in the ‘30s but clandestinely throughout the dictatorship. He had fought from the earliest days of the Civil War, then had been deported to Germany, where was held in Flossenburg concentration camp.

Since he wrote numerous articles about these experiences and was constantly interviewed, he became a national hero. But he had stitched together his courageous past from the thin reality of brief service with the Republican forces, and a few weeks in a German civilian prison. Pretty much everything else was fabricated, and in 2005 he was exposed.

“The Impostor” maps Mr. Marco’s long life, identifying scraps of truth but exposing the tissue of lies he wove about his heroic service to anti-Franco causes. Later he argued that any lies and exaggerations were in the good cause of publicizing events in 20th century Spain.

Javier Cercas does not buy this. “He proclaimed that he was not who he was — an utterly normal man, a member of the vast, silent, cowardly, grey, depressing majority who always say Yes — but an exceptional person, one of those singular individuals who always say No, or who say No when everyone else says Yes, or when it is most crucial to say No.”

This point is central to “The Impostor.” Mr. Marco’s life of lies exemplifies an ongoing historical problem in Spain. After the Civil War, Franco gripped the country in a fascist dictatorship that punished naysayers with imprisonment, torture and mass executions.

As Europe pulled itself out of the mess left by World War II, Spain — which had supported Hitler, though not been a combatant — stagnated economically and socially. So, as much as “The Impostor” traces Mr. Marco’s life, it also asks why Spaniards allowed themselves to suffer under Franco for nearly four decades.

The post-Franco transition to democracy involved no Nuremburg-type trials of Franco’s operatives and no compensation for those who had suffered during the dictatorship. Javier Cercas accepts that this was probably necessary to maintain the fledgling democracy, but its injustice is yet another barbed strand in recent history that rankles him.

The historical record is as much the subject of “The Impostor” as Mr. Marco. One of Spain’s recent solutions is the promotion of “historical memory.” Few visitors to Spain will miss the numerous museums and monuments devoted to the Civil War, or the bookshops windows bright with books about it. Looks good, but Javier Cercas is scathing. The phrase “historical memory” is ambiguous, he asserts, because “Memory is individual, partial, subjective; history is collective and aspires to be comprehensive and objective.”

While “The Impostor” is a biography and an historical essay, it is also a meditation on lies and fiction. And not easy to pen. Though literary friends encouraged him and Marco cooperated, the author held off writing for several years, trying to let the cup pass from his lips. What kind of book could he write?

In the end, he calls “The Impostor” “a true story” and a novel without fiction, often repeating that fiction saves, while reality kills. He also often repeats William Faulkner’s insight about an earlier civil war, “The past is not dead; it is not even past.”

Indeed, he often repeats other insights, and though he has a clear narrative line about Mr. Marco’s life, he often circles around, coming back to conversations with Mr. Marco or with friends and family, or going over events and possible interpretations.

At the beginning of the book, this seems unnecessary, even annoying, but the tug of memory, the nag of frustration, the work of having to lug around the past quickly becomes one of many intertwined subjects in “The Impostor,” and Javier Cercas’ trenchant writing, his range of reference, and incisive commentary soon make his book compelling (and instructive) reading.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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