Book of the week
The Impostor: A True Story
Enric Marco has once again proved himself “the most successful con artist of our time,” said Mario Vargas Llosa in The Wall Street Journal. Thirteen years ago, Marco became world famous when a historian revealed that Spain’s answer to Elie Wiesel—a man who’d battled fascism, endured the horrors of a German concentration camp, and emerged as an eloquent and celebrated witness—was in fact a fraud. Improbably, Marco agreed to be interviewed by novelist Javier Cercas when Cercas decided to ferret out exactly what were lies and what was truth in the stories Marco had told in the books, essays, and speeches that had moved so many to tears. Though Cercas castigates Marco while exposing his fabrications, Marco, ultimately “wins the game.” Like the villain in any good novel, he “ends up exerting over readers an irresistible attraction.” Cercas is the truth teller, but the self-serving fabulist becomes the story’s hero.
Because Cercas is aware of the tables turning, The Imposter “vibrates with an insomniac energy,” said Parul Sehgal in The New York Times. The author discerns quickly what motivated Marco to begin lying about his past: As a young man, he preferred reinventing himself to facing his upbringing in a violent home. And Marco’s lies turn out to be elaborately intertwined with his actual lived experiences—he really did fight in the Spanish Civil War, though he never joined the underground resistance against the dictatorship after Francisco Franco’s victory. During World War II, Marco did live in Germany, but he was a manual laborer, not a resistance fighter deported to a concentration camp. As Cercas delves deeper, his inquiry at times turns philosophical. Is a lie ever morally acceptable, as Marco argues when claiming his own fictions made the truth about the Holocaust more searing to millions? Also, do we not all alter the truth to some degree?
Cercas’ answer to that last question is revealing, said Siobhan Murphy in The Times (U.K.). It’s no coincidence that Marco first went public with his fabricated story shortly after Franco’s death. As Spain moved from dictatorship toward democracy, its citizens developed a passion for stories that recast history. And so audiences lapped up invented tales such as Marco’s doozy about beating an SS guard at chess. In reality, most people hadn’t actively resisted Franco’s fascist regime, and they felt compelled in the aftermath to lie to themselves about their behavior. When Marco’s deception was exposed, it “stung all the more because it was an extreme version of something that many were guilty of.”