How do you tell the truth about a liar? You might discount everything the liar says, hoping that the truth is the exact opposite, but what if you are dealing with a skilled liar, one who knows that the most enduring lies have a dash of truth? How do you know if you are following a clue or falling down a rabbit hole?
This is the problem Javier Cercas set for himself in writing The Impostor. Cercas’ biography recounts his efforts to find the truth about the life of a man named Enric Marco. At one point, Marco was, in Cercas’ words, a “rock star” on the political stage of Spain. An anti-Franco freedom fighter during the Spanish Civil War and a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp at Flossenbürg, Marco rose to prominence as a union organizer, an education leader and a spokesman on behalf of the Spaniards sent to concentration camps by Franco.
All this crumbled, however, when a diligent historian discovered that Marco had never been deported and had never been in a concentration camp. But even after the disclosure of his deceptions, crucial questions remained: Was any part of his story true? And more critically, why ? Was Marco simply a narcissist whose entire sense of self demanded a more grandiose, heroic past than his actual biography could provide? Or, as Marco would have it, was he telling a “noble lie” in order to force Spaniards to face their history?
Cercas, an author of both fiction and nonfiction, including the acclaimed novel The Soldiers of Salamis, struggles to disentangle the strands of truth from Marco’s web of lies. But Marco is such an artful spinner of tales that Cercas can never be sure if he is being used by Marco, somehow rescuing Marco or exploiting Marco for his own gain. Trying to understand Marco is like looking for a phantom in a house of mirrors, but Cercas’ attempt is an important investigation of the role of the writer, the nature of truth and the battle between memory and history.