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.’

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape