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He Was a Prominent Holocaust Survivor. But His Story Was a Hoax.

By August 29, 2018No Comments

Source : The New York Times

It is said that a book must be at least 350 pages long to stop a bullet — a discovery made by British volunteers during the Spanish Civil War who defended Madrid University behind barricades of the thickest books they could find (19th-century German philosophy, it seems). When I first read Javier Cercas, I had the eerie feeling his work was intended for just this purpose. In scope and size (most comfortably meet that 350-page standard), his novels are interventions. They stand between readers and what Cercas considers the gravest threats to us: the misapprehension and cynical use of the past. “He who controls the past, controls the present and the future,” Cercas writes in his new book, “The Impostor,” longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.

“The Impostor,” a work of nonfiction, is the history of an ugly and wildly successful lie. For three decades, Enric Marco, a Catalan mechanic, was a prominent public face of Spanish survivors of the Holocaust — president of a survivors’ association, the recipient of a number of awards and distinctions. He spoke at Parliament and frequently visited schools, well into his 80s, to tearfully recall his time at the Flossenbürg concentration camp; the torture and killings he witnessed; his eight months of solitary confinement.

In 2005, the story was revealed to be a hoax. In the national uproar, some newspapers called for Marco to take his own life.

Cercas was appropriately scandalized, calling Marco “this shameless con artist, this out-and-out liar, this utter scoundrel.” The author’s moral horror was matched only by his physical disgust for the “swarthy, balding, thickset, burly, mustachioed gnome.” (Garlands of epithets are a Cercas specialty; one more: “manipulative, obsequious, utterly unscrupulous parasite.”) He was repulsed by the glibness of Marco’s rationalizations and their sheer number: So what if he embellished a little here and there, went a typical Marco plea, it was for a noble cause — “to educate younger generations about the horrors.” Anyway, he wasn’t really lying — everything he reported did happen, just not to him. Aren’t there bigger sinners out there? What about Kissinger?

Humbert Humbert couldn’t tap dance like this.

But Cercas couldn’t shake a nagging sense of connection with the con man. He becomes Marco’s (balky, reproving) Boswell not to rehabilitate the man — as he reminds his subject sternly — but to understand why he lied, why he was believed and to investigate his own queasy feelings of kinship.

It is thrilling to be in the room with the two of them once their cat-and-mouse game commences: Marco, unctuous, a savant of manipulation; Cercas, recoiling in his chair, empathizing against his will, trying desperately not to be used.

It happens that the claim of being a survivor was merely Marco’s most egregious falsehood. A partial list of other lies: his name, birth date, war wounds, role in the Resistance. Not to mention a pesky secret family. Confronted with his inventions, he occasionally mounted energetic defenses. Other times, he listlessly conceded.

Often, fact and fiction turned out to be elaborately pleached. For example, Marco had been in Germany during the war, but as part of a voluntary work program established by Franco and Hitler. As Cercas tries to understand how Marco constructed his lies — to what end, and with what logic — the book takes philosophical tours. When is it morally acceptable to lie? Who is more qualified to discuss the past — the witness or the historian? In a burst of almost collegial admiration, Cercas wonders if a lie can ever be a work of art. Marco’s fictions, after all, surpass any of his own. Is there something to Mario Vargas Llosa’s controversial claim that Marco is “a monstrous genius”?

Later, Cercas stops and asks himself: “Have I gone insane?”

This torsion — from outrage to compassion to revulsion to baffled admiration to outrage all over again — gives the book its squirmy drama. It vibrates with an insomniac energy. I did, too, while in its throes. There’s no looking away from it; it has the hot, charged energy of sitting through a trial (with the same inevitable longueurs).

Why did Marco lie? This turns out to be the simplest question to answer. His early childhood is painful even to summarize. He was born in a mental hospital for women, where his schizophrenic mother was being held. She was forced to hand over the baby to her husband, a man who’d abused her, whom she’d fled, and Marco was raised in a household rife with alcoholism and violence.

The brilliance of “The Impostor” is how Cercas connects Marco’s desire for reinvention with Spain’s national project of burying its history as it transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. “Not everyone lied with the same skill, shamelessness and insistence, obviously, and few succeeded in inventing a whole new identity,” Cercas writes. “The majority were content to titivate or embellish their past.”

Let’s admire that sentence for a moment. What lovely work “titivate” — “to preen” — does there, with its light aura of fussiness and futility. The book is full of such felicities (Marco’s stories are “slathered in the usual pottage of heroism, victimhood and self-justification”). The language is precise, distinctive and delicious. Is there a more gifted or versatile translator working today than Frank Wynne? He had not one but two of his translations recognized by the Man Booker International judges this year — “The Impostor” and Virginie Despentes’s “Vernon Subutex 1,” translated from the French, which was shortlisted for the award. The voice of this book, the voice of Cercas, with its beautiful grain and restlessness, its swerves from pity to fury, from calm to hysteria, owe much to Wynne’s almost musical modulations.

“Please, leave me something,” Marco pleads with Cercas when forced to admit to one apparently cherished lie. What is there to leave? But Cercas stays in the room — rapt or repelled. He listens. He does not close the door on the past.

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