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.’

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London