Enrique of the Silver Tongue

Christopher Tayler

  • The Impostor by Javier Cercas, translated by Frank Wynne
    MacLehose Press, 429 pp, £20.00, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 85705 650 4

Enric Marco, an energetic pensioner with time on his hands, joined the Amical de Mauthausen, an association of Spanish survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, in 1999. To the elderly Republican deportados and their heirs who ran the outfit on a shoestring from an attic in Barcelona, he soon came to seem a useful person to have around. Under Franco the Amical had been a clandestine organisation providing legal advice and practical support. Now the generation it had been founded to help was dying off, and it was in the process of reinventing itself as an educational body. Marco, who was born in 1921, which made him quite young for a deportado, was an amateur historian and, unlike many survivors, spoke often and vividly of defeat in the Civil War, of having been arrested in France and handed over to the Gestapo, and of the 28 months he had endured in the Flossenbürg camp. He also had administrative experience and contacts in the Catalan parliament, which in 2001 gave him the Creu de Sant Jordi for his career as a campaigner, trade unionist and underground opponent of the Franco regime. A tireless giver of talks, which often moved his audiences to tears, he was elected to the Amical’s presidency in 2003.

Marco was exposed as a fraud two years later by Benito Bermejo, the first Spanish historian to do methodical archival work on the deportados. Given the brush-off by the normally voluble Marco at a commemorative event at the site of the Mauthausen concentration camp, Bermejo had started to wonder about the discrepancies between Marco’s various accounts of his experiences. Rumours started to circulate: he wasn’t the only historian who had found Marco oddly evasive, and it seemed that some survivors, too, had their doubts. Noticing that Marco’s claimed itinerary passed through a railhead the Germans had used to import Spanish volunteer workers during the war, he checked the foreign ministry’s records. They showed that Marco had left Spain with the Nationalist government’s blessing in 1941 to service torpedo boats at a shipyard in Kiel. At first Bermejo had qualms about making this public, but Marco kept delaying a meeting, at which, he said, he would clear up any confusion. Then it was announced that José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was becoming the first Spanish prime minister to honour the deportados by visiting Mauthausen, with Marco in attendance as a keynote speaker. Bermejo got in touch with Zapatero’s office, acquaintances at the Amical and a handful of historians, and after a sequence of rather awkward board meetings, Marco resigned, admitting that he hadn’t been at Flossenbürg or any other camp.

The Spanish media debated Marco’s case feverishly. Was the ease with which he had fooled so many people an indictment of Spanish ignorance about the Second World War, of the media’s own credulity, or did it have to do with the way the country was struggling to come to terms with the notion of historical memory? Or was he just a conman with no general lessons to teach? His old rivals in the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, an anarcho-syndicalist union of which he had once been secretary general, began to wonder whether he’d been a police informer. Mario Vargas Llosa wrote an ironic tribute to his powers as a fabulator in El País, and two pieces were published suggesting he ought to kill himself. But Marco, who was now 84, wasn’t going quietly. Instead he showed up for maulings in television studios and bombarded the world with self-justifying letters: yes, he had embellished his story here and there, because who would have listened otherwise? At least his intentions were pure, unlike those of his antagonists, who, he implied, had pounced on a few regrettable untruths in order to discredit his humanitarian message. When the hubbub died down, he continued to make himself available for in-depth interviews: with two sympathetic Catalan journalists, with the makers of a documentary, Ich bin Enric Marco (2009), and then with Javier Cercas for what became The Impostor.

Cercas, who narrates this ‘novel without fiction’ in his own person, or a version of his own person, had good reasons to find Marco’s story compelling. Vargas Llosa could have been describing Cercas’s writing when he said in El País that Marco’s activities made him think of ‘how thin the border is between life and fiction’. At a dinner party, in Cercas’s telling, Vargas Llosa was more direct: ‘Javier! Don’t you get it? Marco is one of your characters! You have to write about him!’ Cercas – who often presents himself on the page as a bit of a neurotic bumbler, the better to work doubts and second thoughts into his formidably polished storytelling – responded with a sententious remark to the effect that we are all to some extent impostors, which caused another writer present to snap: ‘Yes: especially you.’ And it’s true that imposture is a favourite trope of his. Sudden fame makes the Cercas figure in The Speed of Light (2005) feel like ‘an impostor’, and The Anatomy of a Moment (2009), another ‘novel without fiction’, depicts the former prime minister Adolfo Suárez – who was widely considered ‘little short of an impostor’ by the end of his time in power – as someone whose opportunism and need for love and admiration made him a hero of Spain’s transition to democracy. It would be easy to depict Marco as such a figure’s dark self, or as a grotesque parody of such a figure.

It would also be easy to depict Marco’s imposture as a grotesque parody of Cercas’s imaginings in Soldiers of Salamis (2001), the novel that made his name. Written as a pseudo-memoir or pseudo-investigation – the Cercas figure is researching a historical incident with help from his friend Roberto Bolaño – this played with the line between fact and fiction as a way of getting around the difficulties that stood between Spanish novelists and the story of the Civil War. Those difficulties were partly to do with a need not to be obvious, or not to trade in clear-cut goodies and baddies, but also a consequence of the national reticence imposed by the ‘pact of forgetting’ – the agreement in the 1970s and 1980s not to relitigate the war and the repression that followed it in order to keep Francoism in its grave. All the same, the novel benefited from the huge interest in a proper reckoning with history that gripped Spain around the time that it was published, an interest that Marco exploited to the full. At the novel’s centre is the figure of Miralles, an old Republican soldier who stands for reconciliation but is also an emblem of historical good conscience: a ‘Catalan lathe operator’ who comes to embody the veterans of every just war. Marco, a Catalan car mechanic, made himself over as a similar character, with an added layer or two of kitsch heroics.

At the same time Cercas mistrusted the fascination he felt. ‘I did not want to write this book,’ The Impostor begins. Questions swarmed in: wouldn’t trying to understand Marco merely be giving him the attention he craved, or reviving the affront to those for whom he had claimed to speak? As for rapport with the prospective subject, Marco struck him as being ‘a manipulative, obsequious, utterly unscrupulous parasite who wanted to use me to whitewash his lies and his misdeeds’ when the two first met in 2009. ‘Fiction saves, reality kills’ was Cercas’s private mantra at the time: he had recently finished The Anatomy of a Moment and wanted to get back to making things up. So he wrote Outlaws (2012), a novel dealing with a man who is hollowed out and finally consumed by a role that the media and the public obscurely need him to play. After that, with his son’s encouragement, he approached Marco again and went to work on him in earnest. The resulting book has three strands: the story – or stories – that Marco told about himself at different times in his life; the truth as far as Cercas was able to ascertain it; and the meta-story of Cercas’s investigation, including his shifting feelings about Marco, which range from empathy to revulsion and lead to further self-questioning.

Marco liked to begin lectures by saying he was born on 14 April 1921, exactly ten years before the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic. He had tweaked his birthdate to cast himself as a man of destiny: he was actually born two days earlier in a mental hospital outside Barcelona, where his mother, diagnosed with a schizophrenia-like condition, was confined until her death in 1956. His father, a printer, belonged to ‘the cultural elite of the working class’, and the young Marco became an omnivorous reader. But the father wasn’t affectionate and was soon living with a boozy woman who screamed and hit, so the boy was brought up by aunts and put to work as a tailor’s apprentice. Cercas can’t prove or disprove that Marco witnessed, as he claimed, the capture of the Sant Andreu barracks at the start of the Civil War, or that he tagged along with a militant uncle on the Republicans’ chaotic attempt to take Majorca, though Marco’s imagination, he notes, tends to the dramatic. Even so, it seems clear that the extended family was part of the anarchist workers’ movement, and that Marco, aged 17, briefly served on the Segre front in the former Durruti Column, a claim Cercas thought extremely dubious until it was confirmed by a newspaper from 1938.

The story splits in two more decisively after Franco’s victory the following year. Before he was exposed, and – with only minor modifications – afterwards, Marco maintained that he had been injured by a shell at the front, which meant he couldn’t follow his comrades into exile. When he had recovered, he ventured out from his aunt Ramona’s house and set about resisting the new regime: at first by way of charged gestures, such as outstaring an officer who tried to make him stand for the Falangist anthem in the cinema, and later by founding a Barcelona cell of the Unión de Juventudes Antifascistas, a short-lived insurrectionary group set up by Catalan teenagers. After the UJA was rolled up, Marco’s story went on, he headed to France, only to get picked up by the Pétainist police and transferred to German custody. In truth, as Cercas shows, and got Marco to admit, the war wound was invented to put a romantic gloss on staying put. Like most of the defeated, Marco kept his head down and got on with his life, marrying a young woman whom his aunt had taken in and getting a job in a garage. There was no involvement with the UJA, and he was sufficiently clean in the authorities’ eyes to get called up for military service. To avoid that, and to take advantage of the higher wages on offer, Marco went to Germany.

In November 1941 he was part of the first convoy to leave Catalonia under an agreement by which Franco provided labour – metalworkers were in particular demand – in part payment for Hitler’s help in the Civil War. Quartered in a barracks outside Kiel, he turned parts for propeller shafts and impressed his supervisor with his diligence and skill. Three months in, however, he was arrested and sent to a Gestapo jail, where he was probably mistreated and kept in solitary confinement for five days. The arrest was the result of some big talk at the docks: he was accused of disparaging National Socialism and of being a former communist militant, anarchists and communists being much the same thing to German prosecutors at that time. This translated into a charge of high treason, for which he could expect, at a minimum, to be sent to a concentration camp. Instead he was acquitted after spending seven months in jail: the two Spaniards called as witnesses said he was ‘simply a young man trying to impress them’, and his supervisor testified that he was an excellent worker. After some months spent sorting Spanish books in a library, and later making electronic components, he made his way back to Barcelona in the summer of 1943.

Marco would later write that he had returned – in 1945, after the liberation of Flossenbürg – ‘to do the only work [he] knew how to do: to live for life and to do so fighting for freedom … The thirty years of clandestine struggle that followed were the only way to pick up life where [he] had left off.’ In reality he moved back in with his wife and in-laws, went back to the garage, avoided clandestine struggles and generally lived, in Cercas’s words, ‘a normal life or a semblance of a normal life or what we have mysteriously agreed to call a normal life’. In the late 1940s he got a taste of fast living as a travelling salesman in car parts, and in the early 1950s he abandoned his family after getting into trouble with the law, for theft and embezzlement rather than, as he later claimed, sedition: he was keeping a woman he had met in a brothel as a mistress and his debts got out of hand. Resurfacing in another part of town, now calling himself Enrique Durruti, he worked as a mechanic and let his apprentices assume that he steered clear of the cops for darkly political reasons. In time he married a woman from Andalusia and came to own a string of garages south-west of Barcelona, where he prospered modestly for the next thirty years.

‘Enrique the mechanic’ was popular in the neighbourhood. His employees ‘considered him a highly intelligent boss and a silver-tongued devil capable of selling shampoo to a bald man; but they also considered him to be generous and loyal’. His second wife’s family, like his first’s, was dazzled by his wide reading, apparent political acumen and general air of being a man of the world. Then, towards the end of the 1960s, he found out that his spellbinding powers were even more effective on a new generation. Francoism was beginning to crumble, it was clear to everyone that some sort of change was on the way, and, among students especially, histories that people had long since learned to keep quiet about were acquiring a powerful prestige. ‘Scions of the law-abiding Catalan bourgeoisie’ began to seek him out to hear about his adventures in the Civil War – he wasn’t a camp survivor yet – and the underground activities that followed, though they understood that he had to be vague about those: it was important not to implicate anyone. He began to give ‘wide-ranging masterclasses’ at an academy two student friends had set up and became a guru to some post-Franco notables. In 1973 he also enrolled on a history course at the Autonomous University, where he met a young middle-class woman who became his third and last wife.

Three months after Franco’s death, the CNT, whose militias had once included Buenaventura Durruti’s column, held its first meeting in Spain since the end of the Civil War. Marco, who had had no contact with the union since the 1930s, made his presence felt, and soon became its secretary general, first for Catalonia and then for the whole country. The organisation, such as it was, was split between an ageing, purist exile leadership, which poured scorn on the free election of 1977, and younger posibilistas, local trade unionists with a surer grasp of what was going on in Spain. On top of that, there was a sizeable countercultural faction and a huge influx of idealists, entryists and police informers, though the government took a largely benevolent view: the hope was that the CNT would serve as a counterweight to the socialist unions. Marco, with no particular agenda other than self-aggrandisement, flourished. Old enough to speak the purists’ language and young enough to get along with the posibilistas, he let the intellectuals and ideologues thrash it out during meetings before giving voice to whatever consensus was reached. His non-contributions were interpreted as the ‘humble diffidence of a simple worker hardened by resistance to the dictatorship, and … as proof of his innate perspicacity’.

Unfortunately he had next to no idea of how a union worked or an organisation was run. Constant activity was his tactic here: he went to every meeting and demonstration, and in 1979 got beaten up by the police. (He had pictures taken of the bruises and took to carrying them around, later brandishing them at Bermejo in an effort to change the subject from his time in Germany.) Two years earlier he had made his first public claim to being a former inmate of Flossenbürg, having come across a book on the camps in the course of his continuing studies. He chose Flossenbürg because few Spaniards had been interned there, meaning that he was unlikely to meet anyone who could catch him out, and to begin with he was cautious, writing to the Spanish consul in Kiel to find out what kind of paper trail he had left. In an interview with Eduardo Pons Prades, a local historian and CNT comrade, he said only: ‘I spent very little time in Flossenbürg, and since I was transferred from one place to another and was kept in solitary confinement, I could not make contact with anyone.’ At this stage being a camp survivor was little more than a flourish: thanks to his role at the CNT, his past as an underground activist seemed more solid every day.

*

The CNT expelled him in the early 1980s. Incompetence wasn’t the official cause – he had floundered during a factional showdown and ended up losing the trust of both sides – but he couldn’t be said to have left the union in a better state than he found it. With retirement approaching and in urgent need of an audience, he found a new outlet for his talents in the Federació d’Associacions de Mares i Pares d’Alumnes de Catalunya, an umbrella group for state school parents’ associations. In the course of a fracas over education reforms, which led to street protests of the kind he was now an old hand at, he got himself elected to FaPaC’s board and stayed on it for more than a decade. His colleagues, Cercas’s sister among them, saw him as a charming, slightly roguish figure who took care to be in the foreground at every public event, treasured his hotline to the Education Ministry, and talked about himself for hours – ‘He was like a guy who told stories from the movies to keep us entertained. And he did, my god did he entertain us’ – but fell silent when there were matters of policy to discuss. Ideologically he seemed to be all over the place, ‘pure chaos’, but local politicians loved him, and even sceptics were carried along by ‘his vanity and his energy and his hyperactivity, his ability to always say precisely what people wanted to hear’.

Marco’s story might happily have ended there if not for one awkward condition: board members had to have children in the education system. He saw the problem coming, and by the time his youngest daughter left school he had prepared the ground for an approach to the Amical. The five days he had spent in solitary in Kiel had expanded into eight months, and the artfully offhand sentence he had dictated to Pons Prades about his time in Flossenbürg had expanded into a book’s worth of material. One of his first gestures as someone who was now primarily a camp survivor was a letter to a newspaper in 1999. It was occasioned by the Oscars showered on Life Is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni’s feelgood Holocaust movie, which he said had made him feel ‘an uncomfortable queasiness, one that might seem irrational in someone whose experience so closely mirrors the film’. But ‘in spite of everything, life is beautiful. Everyone’s life.’ This became a central message of his imposture. Cattle trucks, beatings, bodies hanged from Christmas trees: he had lived through all of it, but there had also been moments of heightened human dignity, not to mention heightened national honour, such as one that he elaborated on local television, ‘moved almost to the point of tears by his invented memories’:

That day, I was not so much playing chess with a friend, as teaching him to play, when I saw a shadow fall across the chessboard. I looked up and saw an SS officer, who kicked my comrade off his stool, pounded his fist on the table and ordered me to carry on playing. He wanted to best me, to prove once more that he was better than we were, better than I was; after all, who was I? A pathetic wretch, worse still, a Spaniard, a Latino, a Dago. And I played that game. And then I realised that, if I had to play the SS officer, I had to beat him and accept the consequences. And one by one I began capturing his pieces … I checkmated him, knocked over his king, though I was well aware what this might cost me. But this was the moment chosen for me, this was my moment, there was no way anyone could take it from me, and I believed that, whatever happened, I was once again a human being. That day, I reclaimed my dignity. I won the battle of Stalingrad.

These transparent, mawkish fictions – Cercas gives us many more examples – succeeded in part because Marco knew how to read a room, in part because he saved his hammiest routines for talks in schools, and in part because he had put a lot of effort into working up a plausible background. As well as reading everything he could get his hands on, he had started paying visits to Flossenbürg, where in the helpfully incomplete archive he found a record of a Spanish prisoner, Enric Moné or Moner, whose name could be mistaken for his own. He memorised the camp’s layout, sometimes acted as a guide, and made friends with an elderly Italian former partisan who had spent the last year of the war there. Sometimes they went on holiday together. At the same time, he was good at disappearing when survivors who might ask tricky questions were around, and good at keeping track of people who could safely be named as witnesses after they had died or their memories had failed. He became impatient with the decrepit survivors: why were they such hesitant storytellers? ‘Marco could not resist launching into a subtle battle of egos with the elderly deportados,’ Cercas writes, ‘inventing new anecdotes that were utterly implausible’ and seeking an international hearing for stories he had tried out only on schoolchildren. Reading the room didn’t work with an audience on that scale, and then Bermejo was on the phone.

*

What larger meanings can be found in stories like Marco’s? If his lies reflect badly not just on him but on the many journalists, producers and politicians who swallowed them, then isn’t brooding on that – as Cercas puts it, using one of the many phrases he turns into motifs – just ‘being a wet blanket’? Is it all right to shake up an old man’s family all over again for the sake of a book? Or does writing about a narcissist only play into the narcissist’s hands?

Cercas worries away at these questions as he goes about telling Marco’s story, which he does with great skill, some impressive detective work and an irony that’s sometimes amused and sometimes appalled. He aims to protect himself from moral contagion by being open about where he’s coming from, and there are comic subplots concerning his relationship with his son and his visits to a psychoanalyst, who tries to guide him to the conclusion that he himself is an impostor and his mother is to blame. There’s also a fair amount of essayistic musing that sometimes seems merely to be ringing the changes: Marco as novelist, Marco as Nietzschean self-creator, Marco as Don Quixote. At one point Cercas is seized by a feeling that Marco’s imposture was designed from the start as a secret message to whoever finally unravelled it, like something out of Borges. To this, one of the directors of Ich bin Enric Marco responds: ‘If you think that you understand him and that he has taken off his mask, you’re fucked.’ At other times Cercas wants Marco to face the truth about himself and then worries that the truth would kill him. (When the book was published in Spain in 2014, Marco said that Cercas had cheated him, disputed the book’s claim that he had once owned a beachfront flat and implied that Cercas had made him look bad out of hostility to the Catalan left.)

One model for The Impostor, Cercas says, was Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary (2000), in which Carrère doesn’t efface himself from the non-fictional story he tells. That book’s subject was an impostor who killed his wife, his two children, his parents and his parents’ dog and then cried in court about the dog, but its meditations on the writer-subject relationship aren’t nearly as extensive as Cercas’s, and it’s possible that the difference has more to do with the dramatic possibilities each subject offered than with each writer’s judgment of the right level of moral wariness. Being found out didn’t trigger much in the way of character development in Marco: his admissions slipped out grudgingly during hours of his usual spiel, so the book’s revelations mostly take place in archives. ‘Please, leave me something,’ Marco mutters as Cercas queries his Civil War record, and during another interview the mask seems to slip once or twice. Otherwise he’s too tightly wrapped in his own fictions to sit up and work on the page, and his childhood means that his extreme craving for affirmation and affection doesn’t seem much of a mystery. The hair-raising moments come from peripheral figures, such as a boy who wrote to thank Marco after one of his inspirational school talks, adding that he had been contemplating suicide because of ‘problems at home’ but had now changed his mind: Marco’s fortitude in the camp had put things in perspective.

That his stories helped people was part of Marco’s case for his own defence. He was bearing witness, he said, to things that had really happened, even if they hadn’t happened exactly as he’d said or, come to that, to him. Cercas toys with the idea of the noble lie for a while, only to laugh it out of court and settle on an image of Marco as a drab conformist. He sees Marco’s heroic story of himself as an impress of the ‘everyday indecency and degradation’ experienced by the non-heroic majority in Hitler’s Germany and Franco’s Spain. Marco was only doing, in a more colourful way than most, what everyone around him was doing when he reinvented himself in the 1970s, and his careers at the CNT and FaPaC followed the general dynamic of the time: exuberant political mobilisation, a discovery that democratic politics is boring and difficult, and a retreat into civic associations. Cercas hoped in the early 2000s that the country was getting to grips with Franco’s legacy, but soon came to feel that ‘historical memory’ was being reduced to a rhetorical counter and a marketing tool. As a result, he’s particularly scathing about the appetite for ‘toxic sentimental fodder seasoned with historical good conscience’ that Marco catered to at the height of his fame.

Marco’s standard line in those days was that Spanish democracy had been founded on lies, and that the country would never be at peace with itself until it faced up to the past and took corrective action. Cercas doesn’t disagree, though he points out that the pact of forgetting was a result of all too vivid remembering: those who had lived through the Civil War didn’t want to repeat it, and during the 1980s no political party stood to gain from bringing it up. ‘As for the rest of us, we were too busy enjoying our pristine, brand-new future as rich, civilised Europeans to concern ourselves with our sordid recent past as impoverished, fratricidal Spaniards.’ So for him it’s a deeply unamusing irony that when people did start concerning themselves with that past, one of the voices that spoke to them obsessively of silences and lies and heroic truth-telling was engaged in Trump-style projection. He also disapproves of the sacralisation of victimhood, especially as understood by Marco, who maintains that Bermejo was launched against him by a Jewish conspiracy as retaliation for his comparison of the Occupied Territories to the camps. But Cercas stops just short of making Marco more than a symbol of a national conversation that came to nothing. For that he blames the financial crisis of 2008, which made Spain put all its energies into arguing about the present, ‘as though the past were a luxury it could no longer afford’.