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Javier Cercas interview: Picking over the wounds of Spain’s recent past

Boyd Tonkin meets him as King Juan Carlos gave the tale a new twist

Sometimes I feel like a party-spoiler, saying the worst things about the history of my country.” The Spanish novelist Javier Cercas is sitting in a cosy, wheeled “shepherd’s hut” on the Hay Festival site with his patient teenage son Raul. He speaks fluent, idiomatic English, but here I would gloss the Girona-based writer’s idea of “worst” to mean most contested, least resolved – in short, all the unfinished business of modern Spain. “There are answers but they are not the answers of journalists, of historians, of judges,” Cercas says of his books. “This ambiguity is the space that the writer gives to the reader in order to make the book his own … Without ambiguity, there is no literature. That is the magic of it.”

In the week of Juan Carlos’s abdication, the spotlight has turned again on the king’s disputed role in the abortive “F-23” coup of February 1981, mounted by Colonel Antonio Tejero and his cabal of military plotters. Cercas’s “non-fiction novel” of 2009, The Anatomy of a Moment, stands head and shoulders above other books about that still-elusive event: a thoroughly researched but deeply subjective investigation into the act, its makers, and the web of myths woven around it. “The weight of this coup is so overwhelming,” Cercas says. “For us, it is like the Kennedy assassination: the place where all the demons of our recent past converge.” Although Anatomy broke out from pure fiction, it bore all the Cercas hallmarks. The narrative aimed to settle accounts by navigating through a maze of stories. Within this labyrinth, truth lies in pieces, scattered and fragmented. Yet the author-seeker refuses to give up the quest with a subjectivist, anything-goes shrug. Historical reality lies buried, but still it exists. “Now I have decided that I am a post-post-modernist writer,” Cercas laughs.

He defines his craft: “What is a writer? A guy who thinks that through form it is possible to arrive at a certain truth that you could not arrive at any other way.” Anatomy aside, Cercas has pursued the ever-shifting past through the forms of fiction, while continuing to teach literature at the University of Girona. His novels probe the sore spots and raw wounds of contemporary Spain, their cunning and complexity leavened by a light touch and an easy, graceful style in which captivating dialogue becomes a genuinely dialectical pursuit of truth.

Born in 1962 in Extremadura, into a family of Franco supporters, Cercas moved to Catalonia as a child. Impatient of local cultural orthodoxy, he writes not in Catalan but Castilian. After the darkly comic novellas The Tenant and The Motive, his multi-award-winning novel Soldiers of Salamis (2001) saw this quizzical outsider’s perspective reach full fruition. It told the story of an idealistic literary Fascist – Rafael Sanchez Mazas, who did exist – and the Republican trooper who mysteriously saves him from execution. Winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004, Soldiers of Salamis fathoms the lure of Francoism while paying homage to the courage of those who fought it and dramatising the long, winding journey of younger Spaniards towards the tangled and occluded reality of the Civil War. Lazy pundits tend to caricature this subtly angled vision. “They want to know if I’m pro-Fascist in Soldiers of Salamis, or pro-Suarez [the centrist Prime Minister who resisted the F-23 coup] in Anatomy of a Moment. This is ridiculous. History doesn’t work like that.”

In his latest novel, Cercas applies all his prismatic storytelling to another tale of the “transition” after Franco died. Outlaws, translated with all her unfailing flair and empathy by his regular collaborator Anne McLean, plunges us into the forgotten underworld of the quinquis. These young gangsters left a trail of crime and outrage through late-1970s Spain, passing across the liberated land like a short-lived whirlwind. To Cercas, the quinquis were “a perfect example of the mixture of fear and hope with which Spain lived the extraordinary change from dictatorship to democracy. Hope, because we were beginning to be a free country. Fear, because we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

“People saw them both as a by-product of democracy and a remnant of dictatorship,” he adds. Outlaws invents a composite gang leader, the charismatic Zarco from the author’s home town of Girona. Did he have any real-life model? “Of course” – but not just one. “All fictional characters are like Frankenstein’s monster.” The novel explores “the creation and the destruction of the Zarco myth” through the eyes of Ignacio, now a defence lawyer, who had in his late teenage years joined the fringes of this band of would-be Robin Hoods.

Cercas can remember the allure of the Zarcos: “They were admired. I admired them. They were free. They had money. They had girls.” All fiction since Don Quixote operates on the principle of “What if?”, he muses. Here, his lonely, awestruck protagonist Ignacio “bears a lot of resemblance to myself. He lives in the same place in the city and goes to the same high school. What if I had not been the pedantic, normal adolescent that I was? What if one day I had crossed the river and met these gangsters, who were everywhere?”

As for the quinquis’ cult of the chivalric hoodlum, the media colluded with the tearaways. “What was astonishing was the degree of mythification of these poor adolescents,” Cercas recalls. “They were avatars of a universal myth”: Robin Hood, Billy the Kid, or the Chinese “Water Margin” bandits from the TV series Ignacio loves. “This was very intense but very ephemeral,” Cercas recalls: “99 per cent of these guys died because of the violence they created.” Heroin and the Aids that needle-sharing spread did for most of them – “the war of my generation,” he dubs the drug and its toll. “Everyone in my generation knows somebody who died because of that,” across all classes. “This is a black hole in history.”

Outlaws no more endorses the delinquency of the “transition” years than Soldiers of Salamis endorses Francoism. “In this myth, finally, there is no glamour, no heroism, just desperation. All this idealisation, this romanticism, was bullshit.” As in the previous novel, it does, via a play of voices, manage to understand the phenomenon from inside. The facets glint and the light forever changes – as always with Cercas’s work. Zarco the “fabulous hero” switches to “disgusting psychopath”. Yet relativism is never enough. Against “the dictatorship of the present”, the writer must persist in digging for that hidden truth. “The past is a dimension of the present,” Cercas says. “I don’t write historical novels, but novels about this bigger present that contains the past.”

Extract: Outlaws by Javier Cercas (Translated by Anne MclLan) Bloomsbury, £16.99

‘Things had gone well for me. I hadn’t been locked up in jail. I hadn’t tried heroin. I hadn’t contracted Aids. I hadn’t been arrested, not even after the bank robbery … I’d had, in short, a more or less normal life, something that for someone who’d belonged to Zarco’s gang, was perhaps the most abnormal life possible.’