When a lifetime of lies unravels

Marco professed to be an active resistance player in the Spanish Civil War when he wasn’t a resister of any sort. His deceptions were believed by millions worldwide.

ENRIC MARCO receives the Creu de Sant Jordi Award in 2001, four years before his web of lies began to unravel. (photo credit: THE GOVERNMENT OF CATALONIA)
ENRIC MARCO receives the Creu de Sant Jordi Award in 2001, four years before his web of lies began to unravel.
Novelist Javier Cercas’s latest work takes a look at the real life of Enric Marco, a man who lied for decades about being a Holocaust survivor • ELAINE MARGOLIN Novelist Javier Cercas carries the burden of Spain’s tortured history heavily upon his shoulders. Born in 1962, he grew up the son of a strictly Catholic Francoist father with whom he quarreled incessantly. He was 13 when Franco died, and his most famous novel, Soldiers of Salamis, blends autobiography and fiction while ingeniously probing the fragility of historical memory. Cercas repeatedly examines the complex web of lies we tell ourselves and tries to explore the reasons we do so. He is impressed by those who are able to reinvent themselves into something extraordinary simply by the force of their own imagination.
Such a man was Enric Marco, the subject of Cercas’s latest brilliant work, The Impostor: A True Story, translated into English by Frank Wynne. Marco claimed to have spent time in the Flossenburg concentration camp despite having never been there. Marco professed to be an active resistance player in the Spanish Civil War when he wasn’t a resister of any sort. His deceptions were believed by millions worldwide. He was a brilliant liar who instinctively understood how to combine his falsehoods with snippets of truth and was a mesmerizing public speaker.
In reality, he was a fraud and a con man – and an unrepentant one of each. He was a mechanic by trade and went to Germany to assist the Third Reich in that profession as part of an exchange program set up by Franco to appease Hitler. He never fought in the Spanish Civil War. He hid two past marriages and the children they brought forth from his professional biography, and married his third wife who was unaware of his past lives and believed him to be a heroic figure.
When he was exposed by historian Benito Bermejo in 2005, he continued to insist that his work was meaningful and had brought attention to the Nazi horror which included 9,000 Spaniards who were taken to concentration camps. Almost all of them perished.
He spoke out about these horrors for years as president of Amical De Mathuesen, which is the Spanish association of Nazi victims. As for the Spanish Civil War, he played no part in it whatsoever other than joining millions of his countrymen in falling in line behind Franco’s iron rule.
Marco’s early life was horrendous. He was born in a mental asylum and neglected afterward by his father. He was abused by his stepmother who was an alcoholic and prone to fits of rage. He seemed to decide early on that he would become someone else; and blessed with boundless energy and health and drive, he proceeded to do so. People liked him, and even those who suspected the gaping holes in his resumé looked the other way, as if they feared what they might uncover.
But what raises this book beyond mere biography and into an extraordinary feat of daring and introspective inventiveness all its own, is Cercas’s willingness to embrace his biographical subject alongside himself and his sense of his own failings. He initially abhors Marco and all he represents. Then we watch him slowly become entranced by him, only to return to feeling hostility toward him.
Marco was already in his 90s when Cercas began interviewing him and filming their sessions, which took on a heightened sense of uncomfortable discoveries for both men. Cercas tries not to condemn Marco nor to cleanse his record, but rather to study him as a reflection of the guilt and self-denial and self-hatred that inflicts so many of his countrymen, including himself and his beloved father, whose lifelong worship for Franco still rankles him.
He sees in Marco uncomfortable shadows of his own deceptiveness, which he shares with us with unusual bouts of candor and self-condemnation. He also is forthcoming about his frequent sessions with a psychoanalyst who seems intent on convincing Cercas that his problems and anxieties lie nestled within the confines of his relationship with his mother – an assessment Cercas finds trite and demeaning.Cercas sees something in Marco that resonates with him and he wants to understand its genesis. Others seem to see it, too. Cercas grows nervous at dinner parties when friends teasingly comment upon his lack of authenticity, a certain falseness that seems to pervade his public presentation.
He is forced to reckon with their assessments since they match his own growing realizations about himself.
In one bizarre chapter, Cercas holds an imaginary conversation with Marco, confronting him on his deceptions.
Marco attacks him with a ferocity he does not anticipate and claims they are both woven from the same cloth. Marco insists they both are fueled by grandiose ambitions and both of them distort the past. Marco did it on the world stage until his unveiling and Cercas does it in his novels which blend truth and fiction while seducing readers with literary trickery that distorts the truth.
Marco tells Cercas that he too wants to be a revered figure, as well as an unforgotten novelist. Both of them want to deny the reality of Spain’s past: Spain’s collaboration with the Germans and its passivity under Franco. Neither one of them is able to confront their past wrongdoings and avoid close scrutiny of their own misdeeds. Cercas meekly attempts to defend himself to his imaginary sparring partner but can’t summon the courage to do so.
Cercas’s writing is magically layered and naturally antagonistic toward easy answers regarding life’s most mystifying paradoxes. That is what gives it a haunting power.
It reflects our ongoing ambivalences about everything: how regret and confession can fade away into defensiveness and amnesia without warning – and then come back again. Such is the human way of coping.
He begins by writing a few paragraphs that he confesses were written after he had first completed the book. The indecisive tone that is laced with a fierce intelligence about our limited introspective power reflects all that comes later.
“I did not want to write this book. I didn’t know exactly why I didn’t want to write it, or rather I did, but didn’t want to acknowledge it, or didn’t dare acknowledge it; or not entirely,” he wrote. “The fact is that for more than seven years I resisted writing this book. During that time, I wrote two others, but I never forgot this one; on the contrary: after my fashion, while I was writing those two books, I was also writing this one. Or perhaps, after its fashion, this book was writing me.
“The first paragraphs of a book are also the last to be written. The book is finished. This paragraph is the last I am writing. And, since it is the last, I now know why I didn’t want to write this book. I didn’t want to write it because I was afraid. This is what I’ve known since the beginning but didn’t want to acknowledge, or didn’t dare acknowledge; or not entirely. What I didn’t know until know is that my fear was completely warranted.”
Cercas is a novelist who deserves the following he craves. His past works, The Speed of Light, The Anatomy of a Moment, Outlaws and others have been widely acclaimed, earned him numerous international awards and have been translated into more than 30 languages. They all dwell on the flimsiness of historical memory and its toxic after-effects.
That is why I found myself incredibly disturbed during a brief passage in which Cercas attempts to answer critics who claimed that Marco’s transgressions powered antisemitic fervor and gave fuel to Holocaust deniers.
Cercas dismisses these claims outright, claiming that Holocaust denial is essentially dead, and adding that the few who do partake in it do not really hold any sway. This seemed an unforgivable assessment that stains this otherwise brilliant work. It also reveals him to be either negligent or misinformed about the hazards that still face Jews everywhere.
Sadly, though, this omission inadvertently validates his essential thesis: We all lie to ourselves; countries create false histories to bolster their place in the world order and reinvigorate their people; the most heinous acts committed are usually whitewashed over or forgotten completely; and people often claim a lineage to a heroic past that is merely a figment of their desires – just like Enric Marco did.
The reality is, most of us fall in line when evil forces dominate and comply quietly – just like his father.