Outlaws by Javier Cercas; trans. Anne McLean, book review: The challenges of freedom as a democracy comes of age

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Javier Cercas's seventh novel begins during Spain's transition from dictatorship to democracy, after General Franco's death in 1975, and follows its characters through three decades, as they come of age.

His previous book, The Anatomy of a Moment, was a work of imaginative non-fiction, which grew from Cercas's attempts to write a novel about the failed Francoist coup of 1981, and the Spaniard, who won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004 for Soldiers of Salamis, skilfully traverses the border between fiction and history.

In the summer of 1978, Ignacios Canas is a bespectacled, middle-class youth who's mercilessly bullied at school in the Catalonian city of Gerona. These humiliations have a big impact on Canas but, at 16, he's too old to be having his head flushed down toilets, so there's an early problem of plausibility. Cercas's dilemma is that Canas must be on the cusp of adulthood if he's to join in the escapades that ensue when he meets Zarco and the beautiful Tere in an arcade one afternoon. Intimidated by him, captivated by her, Canas joins Zarco's criminal gang. "You have things to lose and we don't," Zarco warns, but Canas's rebellion lasts long enough for Cercas to evoke the exhilaration of illicit activities by the sea.

When a bank robbery goes wrong, a policeman, Cuenca, inexplicably lets Canas go free, while the rest of Zarco's gang are sent to prison. Did Canas betray Zarco by informing police? Did Tere love Canas in ways he was too self-conscious, and too conscious of social distinctions, to appreciate? These questions haunt Canas as he grows up to become a successful lawyer. Meanwhile, Zarco is transformed by the media into a romantic outlaw who symbolises "the frustrated hopes of the heroic years of the change from dictatorship to democracy..." Canas, Cuenca and a prison superintendent narrate their stories to a journalist who's writing a book about Zarco.

Anne McLean's brisk translation sweeps the reader into Canas's world but Cercas's long, multi-clause sentences occasionally become tangled. When Tere appears with Zarco's wife in Canas's office in 1998, he agrees to represent Zarco for free. He's motivated by affection for Tere, a sense of guilt and his fascination with Zarco, but could a criminal really capture a country's imagination to the extent that Zarco does? Cercas is a prolific journalist but his portrayal of the media that manipulates Zarco's myth feels exaggerated.

Outlaws is about the ways individuals and societies perceive themselves, the stories which sustain and imprison them, and the challenges of freedom and subjectivity. There's something of Kafka's Josef K about Canas, so who's on trial? Is Canas guilty of betrayal? Vanity? Perhaps the truth is subtler and broader: when Canas visits Tere, he notices "two Middle Eastern women with their hair covered by scarves" and remarks on the "underprivileged order" of the place. This is one of many tiny indications of Canas's failure to see outside the prism of social class. He doesn't look closely at the society around him and, to a writer as engaged as Cercas, that's sinful.

"You really haven't understood anything, Counsellor," says a stranger, but how much does the reader understand about Cercas's labyrinth? Like Canas, I felt bewildered, implicated in the story's mysteries and left with many questions.