02 October 2018

The Imposter

Ostensibly, The Imposter, by Javier Cercas is a book about Enrico Marco, who at the age of fifty (as did Don Quixote, Cercas often reminds the reader) reinvented his life and himself. Cercas writes, “He [Marco] became deeply politicized, and completely reinvented himself, falsifying or embellishing or embroidering his past, gifting himself with a new name, a new wife, a new city, a new job and a new life.” Finally, Marco went so far as to claim to be a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp, Flossenbürg. This, like the rest of Marco’s story, Cercas discovers, to be a blatant lie. Cercas’ book, apparently an elaboration of an article exposing Marco’s deception, details the process by which Marco invented his life. Ostensibly, The Imposter is a book about the deceptions constructed by Enrico Marco in his reinvention of himself and Cercas’ journey to discover those lies. Cercas, the novelist, admits that he can’t write a novel about Marco because Marco has already spoken so many lies that his life is already a fiction. He has to write an interpretive history, though ironically Cercas writes, “The liar has no history.”
     Ostensibly, all seems well and good. But in fact, Cercas is a novelist, and throughout The Imposter he refers to books as either “novels with fiction” or “novels without fiction.” All novels mix fiction and reality, Cercas acknowledges. “Except for non-fiction novels or true stories, all novels do.” The Imposter is meant to be a novel without fiction, but Cercas troubles the notion of literature. His classification suggests that all books are novels, a genre that is associated usually with the category of fiction: things that are made up, are imaginative creations, with characters that have no actual existence in the world, but rather, exist only in the imaginations of the author and her readers. Well, t description hat sounds a bit like Enrico Marco: and Part II of Cercas’ book second is headed “The Novelist of Himself.” But I am thinking—I have thought-- if all books are novels, then what are novels except just that--books, and to label them as ‘with or without’ fiction becomes a spurious distinction. To paraphrase Hamlet, there is nothing true or false but thinking makes it so??
     I think The Imposter concerns the nature of literature, what it is and how it serves the reading public: well, even the nonreading public who live with those who do read. The question recurs often in Cercas’ book: how is what Marco has done in creating a character different than what an author does in constructing a world, and perhaps for similar reasons. In an imaginary conversation with Marco (!), Cercas asks, “if literature cannot serve to save people, what purpose does it serve?” Marco tries to convince Cercas (Cercas usurping Marco’s voice!) that the two men are identical in their purpose. “And what did I do?” Marco asks. “I did exactly the same as you—no, I did it much better than you. I invented a guy like Miralles [a character in Cercas’ novel [Soldiers of Salamis], except that this Miralles was alive and he visited schools and talked to children about the horrors of the Nazi camps and about the Spanish inmates there, and about justice and freedom and solidarity; this man was leader of the Amical de Mauthausen, and thanks to him people began to talk about the Holocaust in Spanish schools, thanks to him people discovered that Flossenbürg camp existed and that fourteen Spaniards had died there.” What Marco argues (what Cercas argues as Marco) is that the fiction that Marco creates served a greater purpose no different than Cercas hopes for his novels with fiction.
     Marco lived the novel he wrote. As an interesting note, Cercas links his narrative to the myth of Narcissus. Conceived as a result of his mother’s rape by Cephissus, Narcissus is born with incredible beauty. Liriope travels to the blind prophet, Tiresias, to ask if her son will live to an old age. Tiresias tells Liriope, that her son will live to old age “if he does not know himself.” Cercas labels Marco as “a textbook narcissist;” at the moment of this writing Marco is ninety-seven years old. What seems suggested is that Marco never does come to know himself, and the novel he wrote kept him defensively ignorant. Literature saved him.