In his novels and non-fiction work, Javier Cercas relentlessly dissects the Spanish past. Most recently, The Impostor (translated by Frank Wynne) was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.
Which writers have influenced your writing and your thinking on the past?
That’s difficult to answer. I would say that a writer has two traditions: the universal tradition, from which he chooses whatever he wants, and the tradition of his own language. This you have to use, to grasp, these two traditions, as if it were a chariot, you have to balance these two. For me Flaubert was extremely important when I was young. Kafka was essential. And from the tradition of my own language I must say I don’t feel like I’m a Spanish writer. I feel like I write in Spanish, which is very different. That means that the Latin American tradition was very important to me, and that my tradition has been enriched by writers such as Borges.
So you see yourself as an international writer?
Of course. We writers live in a global environment. All writers, all real writers, have been influenced by writers from other languages, other countries, other traditions, and that’s what makes us rich. That has always been true. It has always been a mixture of traditions, of influences.
In your most recent novels El Monarca de Las Sombras (English translation forthcoming) and The Impostor, you continue developing your idea of how the past impacts the present. How does the past live on?
At a certain point of my books something changed. Two things appeared: the past as a dimension of the present, first of all. And also, the collective as a dimension of the individual. I mean, when some people say that my books are historical novels I get a bit mad, because I’m not interested in history itself. I’m interested in the past that has not passed. There’s a leitmotif in The Impostor by Faulkner: ‘The past is not dead, it’s not even past.’ That’s the past that really interests me, the one that is still a dimension of the present, without which the present is mutilated, without which the present can’t be grasped.
We all have two inheritances: one good and one bad. Of course we know our best inheritance, because our family tells us about it. But not the bad one. Why? Because people who have lived through terrible things – war, dictatorships – don’t talk about it. A sort of fog covers this bad inheritance. What I tried to do in my last book, El Monarca de Las Sombras, was to look at this inheritance. I wanted to learn about my family, about the supposed hero of my family. He was a young boy, 17, when the war began in Spain, and he became an enthusiastic fascist. He went to the war and was killed in combat in the worst battle of the Spanish Civil War. This guy was the symbol of our worst inheritance: civil war, fascism, Francoism. My entire family was on Franco’s side. What to do with this inheritance? It lives in me. Do I just reject it? Or know it? Or learn about it, to understand it?
That is also a major theme in The Impostor.
Enric Marco, the main character in The Impostor, decides to invent a past for himself. That’s what humans tend to do when we deal with our worst past, both individual and collective, we tend to invent it, to lie about it. What I tried to do is exactly the opposite: let’s look at it, let’s see why it happened. Why is this important to me? First of all, because if you know and understand your inheritance you can use it, digest it, learn what to do with it. If you don’t know it then it’s your inheritance that uses you, that takes control of you. And that’s one conviction that lies in my books, the fact that we should understand, that to understand is not to justify. That’s a very important part of The Impostor. Understanding is exactly the contrary to justifying. To understand is the only way to prevent evil from happening again. That’s what literature, real literature, real thinking does. Of course this is dangerous, but there’s no literature without danger. Real literature is always dangerous. That’s why I think I’m a post-post-modern writer, because I think literature is extremely useful – as long as it doesn’t want to be useful. If it wants to be useful it becomes propaganda, pedagogy, and then stops being useful. If we formulate complex questions in the most complex possible way, we can begin to have instruments so that nothing like it will happen again. If we decide not to understand anything, to simply reject it, we will for sure repeat the same mistakes.
That sounds like a good manifesto.
Well, yes! When I was young I was educated to think that literature was just a game, that it’s just a play. But now I think it’s very serious. Of course I love humour and irony, but humour is the most serious thing in the world!
With The Impostor you have written a novel of truth. Do you think, when it gets translated into a language and a cultural context in which that truth isn’t known, that it somehow turns into fiction? Because to recognise truth you must kind of know the context.
No I don’t think so. A reader who doesn’t know anything about Chinese history who reads a book about that history, would he think that it’s fiction? The whole point of The Impostor is that it’s a non-fiction novel. It is constructed as a novel – a special novel, made up of different genres, because novels can do that as a hybrid genre. But at the end of the day it still tells a factual truth. It uses imagination, but historians do that too. The most important decision I made when writing this book was to stick to the truth. At one point I realised that Enric Marco had invented his whole life. He was a walking fiction. So at a point I decided it was ridiculous to write more fiction. I organised a battle between fiction and fact, the lies that he told and the truths he told. Of course you can still read it as a fiction, and I know people have done so.
I suppose that has happened here, seeing as it was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.
Yes – that is strange to me, strange but good!
Javier Cercas is a novelist, short-story writer and columnist, whose books include Soldiers of Salamis, The Tenant and The Motive, The Speed of Light and The Anatomy of a Moment. His most recent novel, The Impostor, was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and won a PEN Translates award. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages. He lives in Barcelona.
Interview by Theodora Danek.
Photograph of Javier Cercas © Sonia Balcells