The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-Five Minutes in History and Imagination

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The Heroism in Saying No: The Millions Interviews Javier Cercas

In early 2016, I had a chance to take my wife and kids to Barcelona for a few months. It felt like a great time to be out of the U.S. in general—primary season!—but especially to be there on the Mediterranean, where winter is what we here call “spring.” I’d been abroad only a handful of times before, never for more than a couple weeks, and now I surrendered giddily to food and architecture and people, a whole different tempo of life. Perhaps not coincidentally, I fell in love with pretty much every book I opened there. I read Open City. I read Spring Torrents. I read Mercè Rodoreda, Catalonia’s answer to Clarice Lispector (and a shamefully neglected writer here at home). I read Isherwood and Saramago. Especially, though, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even later, back in the U.S., I would feel with these writers the connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. Over the last couple years, I’ve managed to track each of them down for an interview. The second in this series will be with Enrigue; the third with Marías.

The first is with Cercas, author of the international bestseller The Soldiers of Salamis and the acclaimed “novel with nonfiction” The Anatomy of a Moment, as well as the novels The Speed of Light and Outlaws. His new novel with nonfiction, The Impostor, tells the true story of Enric Marco, who passed himself off for a quarter century as a Holocaust survivor and leader of the resistance to Franco’s dictatorship. In her New York Times review, Parul Seghal wrote of the book’s “hot, charged energy” with the thrill of one discovering Cercas’s work for the first time. It’s a thrill I remember well myself.

The Millions: I wanted to start with a curious discrepancy. This summer, I picked up a copy of The Speed of Light in a used bookshop, and I was struck by the self-portrait you’ve embedded at the beginning there. As in many of your books, there’s a Javier Cercas character, and here he’s a young man in his mid-20s, a kind of writer manqué, but with no sense of what he might want to write. But then in Roberto Bolaño’s nonfiction collection Between Parentheses, he has an essay about you [“Javier Cercas Comes Home”] where he says, in essence, that he’s known you since you were 17 and you were always hunting big game, always going to write a masterpiece, and now you’ve come home to Gerona to do so. So which, I guess I’m asking, was the real you: the schlemiel or the focused, ambitious artist.

Javier Cercas: This is very easy, in fact. I was always an outcast. I’m an immigrant, a child of immigrants, from Extremadura. A guy without roots.

TM: Even in language, right? Your parents would have spoken Castilian, and now they’ve landed in Gerona, this city in Catalonia, where everyone speaks Catalan. You’re like the character Gafitas, in Outlaws.

JC: Yes. And I wanted to be a writer from the very beginning, when I was 14, I think. But because I was an outcast, it was like wanting to be an astronaut … a very weird thing to be. In fact, Bolaño was probably my first friend who wrote a book in Spanish—and he was something like 47 when he wrote that piece, 10 years older than me. And he still wasn’t famous yet the way he is today.

I’ll tell you a funny story about Bolaño. We were always on the phone, like boyfriend and girlfriend. One day, around the time when he began to be known, he calls me and says, “Javier, there is this anthology of young writers called Yellow Pages that’s just come out, and you’re not in it. You must have made a big enemy somewhere.” I told him, “No, no, that’s not true. The problem in fact is that no one even knows who I am!”

TM: As in “I should be lucky to have such enemies!”

JC: Well, a lot of that is just the way Bolaño saw the world, and it comes through in the piece you mentioned. He had that wonderful sense of literature as a fight.

TM: The novelist and the critic fencing on the beach in The Savage Detectives …

JC: Exactly. Anyway, for me, at that time, I knew I was a writer, or wanted to be a writer, but I was a complete outsider. I was completely outside of any literary milieu.

TM: Which is not such a bad way to be. So basically you were writing fiction for yourself while scraping by with journalism as a day job, like the Javier in your books, until Soldiers of Salamis came along and changed your life?

JC: No, I was in the university. Because I needed to earn my living, you know? This was my idea: being in the university, writing my books, and no one reading them. No one except Bolaño, my mother, and some friends. Which is normal! I have readers now, but that’s not normal. I had gone to America for a couple of years to study, and then I had been writing. But at the moment in my life when Bolaño wrote what he wrote about me, I was in a strong depression. I had come back to Gerona, you know, from the States, then Barcelona. At that moment, his piece was very important to me. And it was all lies!

TM: Prophecies, not lies.

JC: But yes, in any case, Soldiers was the book that changed everything.

TM: How did you come to the story of Rafael Sánchez Mazas? I mean, was it all at once, or was it something you had been carrying around? Or a combination: something you had been carrying around for a while that was then catalyzed suddenly by some other thing—the way the Sánchez Mazas story in the first half of book is catalyzed by the story of you and Bolaño and the search for Miralles in the second.

JC: The last of these, I think. I had the Sánchez Mazas story originally from his son, Sánchez Ferlioso, as the Javier Cercas character in the book gets it. I should say that all the characters in that book are real. It’s a false chronicle, so of course everything has to be real. Except for one character, who you’ll never guess.

TM: I surrender.

JC: The fortune teller, the girlfriend of Javier Cercas, who is completely made up. And of course—and this is completely true—that’s the one character who sued me. A real fortune teller in the town where the book is set sued me for using her in my book! The Bolaño part of the story, though, is a little different from the Sánchez Mazas story. Bolaño had told me that part, the story of Miralles, a long time ago. And it occurred to me that I could use it to tell the first story. I went to him and asked him for permission, expecting him to turn me down—

TM: Because in your mind it’s literary gold—

JC: Exactly. And of course he said, “No, no, this is not much of a story,” and he allowed me to have it.

TM: I sometimes think this is how books come about—that you discover you are the only one who sees the fictional value in a thing, and you almost have to write it because if you don’t, no one else will. Anyway, since before Soldiers, from your first work Relatos Reales, all the way up to The Impostor, you’ve been drawn to this borderland between fiction and nonfiction. What attracted you to it?

JC: Well, I thought from the beginning, pure fiction is always a lie, you know? In some way, the fuel is always reality. I wrote about this recently in an essay called The Blind Spot: that the novel is a wonderful genre where you can invent anything you want—that’s how Cervantes gave it to us. But that the fuel is reality. As for how to mix the two, each book has its own rules; it all depends on the book. To write a book is to create a game. You have to find the rules, to formulate the question in the most complex possible way. As in The Impostor: “Why did this guy, Enric Marco, the false Holocaust survivor, lie about the worst crime in history?” I’m always trying to write what I don’t know. And the first thing the writer must do is figure out the unique rules of the game. If two books have the same rules, one of them is bad.

TM: Naturally.

JC: In the case of The Impostor, one rule was that it would be redundant to write a fiction about another fiction. Instead, I thought, let’s organize the book as a battle between the lies and the truth. And if people ask me, like the man on the radio [NPR’s Ari Shapiro] just now, “Why ‘novel without fiction?'” I think, “why not?”

TM: The “why not” is the freedom. And the rules are the constraints.

JC: Yes. You choose your constraints. And then you become a slave to them. There’s a moment in the book, I’ve been interviewing Enric Marco, picking apart his lies, and then at this one moment, this last lie, Marco says, hands on head, “Please leave me something.” But I couldn’t, because I was a slave to the rules. This was a difficult moment.

And yet when I actually sat down to do the writing, I was incredibly happy writing this book—which is not always the case.

TM: I wanted to ask you about heroism. We’ve talked about the method, but at least from Soldiers on, heroism is the subject—even in The Impostor, where it’s the image of the hero, or some debased idea of heroism, that seems to hold Marco captive and prod him into his many lies. Kitsch heroism, like the story he tells about playing chess with the concentration camp guard and refusing to lose, even though he knows it may cost his life. Are you aware of this as a through-line, heroism?

JC: I don’t know where it comes from. Probably my reading as a boy, adventure books. Stevenson. Verne. The Odyssey and The Iliad. But it’s a specific kind of heroism I’m interested in. Once Le Monde asked me and some other writers a question: What single word is most important for you? It’s a strange question, but the moment I hung up the phone, I knew the answer: the word “No.” Sort of quoting Camus: “The Man Who Says No.” My novels are about these kinds of heroes, people who say no, or try to say no.

TM: What you call, in The Anatomy of a Moment (following Hans Magnus Enzensberger) the “hero of retreat.” Like Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez there, who appears in that one moment or period as a very complicated sort of hero, and was far from heroic in all kinds of other ways.

JC: There is only one pure hero in all the books: Miralles in Soldiers of Salamis. He has to kill an enemy—a bastard—and still he says no. As for me, I would be among the members of parliament in The Anatomy of a Moment, ducking for cover. And then Marco in The Impostor, of course, is the man who says yes. He would love to be a hero, but can’t.

TM: Why do you think that is?

JC: Virtue is something secret, I think. When it becomes public, it’s no longer heroism. Yet Marco had to constantly be saying “I’m a hero, I’m a hero, we’re all heroes.” And of course, Marco is everyone. We are all, in a sense, this guy; he’s a perfect mirror of our time. This book says something awful: We prefer lies to the truth. Lies are beautiful.

TM: Sexy, maybe. Pretty. But not beautiful. Beauty is like virtue. Or is virtue.

JC: My question all along was, Why don’t people call him on his lies? And the answer is that people prefer pretty lies to the truth. The truth about Nazi camps is complex, dirty, and not beautiful. Claudio Magris wrote about Marco something like “He lied, yes, but for a good cause.” But that’s bullshit. What he was spreading was adulterated, romantic, heroic kitsch. And we prefer that. That’s why Donald Trump is in your White House.

TM: And in Spain, what was the reaction to this book? I knew when I first heard about it that American readers would be interested in it. We have the kind of relationship you’re describing with dirty parts of our own history, with slavery and exploitation, but we have this less complicated relationship, at least publicly, with the fight against Naziism. But in Spain, part of the “historical memory” movement you contributed to with Soldiers and write about in Anatomy and The Impostor has to involve negotiating the complicity of ordinary people with Francoism, with fascism. Marco, you suggest, offered a heroic version of “historical memory” that helped ordinary people feel virtuous. So what was the reaction domestically to your writing about Marco, and in a sense calling out the lies?

JC: The answer is quite easy. I have my readers in Spanish. So with them, I have no problem. But many other people were resistant to what I am saying in the book. Don’t get me wrong, “historical memory” is essential. What’s Faulkner’s line? The past is not dead. The past, of which we are living witnesses, is part of the present, without which the present is mutilated. The Spanish Civil War is the present. Francoism is the present.

But the truth is, necessarily, that most people accepted Francoism. And that most people adulterate or erase the worst part of their history. I recently read this suggestion by Tzvetan Todorov, that de Gaulle convinced the French people they were all Resistance: “Les français n’ont pas besoin de la verité,” he said. People tend to mask … and I understand that. But now, it is not possible. The movement for “historical memory” in Spain was insufficient, and became fiction: “We were all anti-Franco. We were all heroes.” It’s completely false—bullshit!

The reality is more complex and ugly: Fascism was supported by many people. And I don’t blame them. To be a hero is very difficult. You go to jail and die, is the usual outcome. Yet it shows a lack of respect to lie about it. If you lie about the past, you lie about the present. Another Faulkner line, from a letter, I think: “There is no such thing as was.”

A lot of Catalans and the Left, in particular, were mad at me for The Impostor. But it’s a national problem. We’re drowning in lies.

TM: Especially you, it seems. There’s a moment in the book, early on, that’s a curious one. You’re at a dinner, in Madrid I think, with Mario Vargas Llosa and some others, and the discussion turns to the just-unmasked Enric Marco, and someone suggests you have to write about him because he’s so much like a character in your books. You say something like, “Well we’re all impostors,” and someone says, “But especially you, Javier.” You don’t return to this line for many hundreds of pages in the book, but it seems to form some secret connection between you and Marco. Why are you, uniquely, an impostor?

JC: I’m going to tell you a secret, and it’s very interesting: There is one chapter in this battle between truth and lies that is invented. It’s a dialogue … I don’t know, a daydream or something. And the answer is there. Because there Marco can say what he really wants, can attack me. He says, OK, I lied. But you did, too. In fact, Marco wanted to be Miralles. But he tells me “You married fiction and fact, you became famous, a millionaire”—which is not true, of course—”But I did the same and I was a pariah. And remember,” he’s saying, “You are me. I am you.”

Of course, he’s lying.

TM: In the midst of a chapter you’ve invented.

JC: But that’s the idea. The book, really, is a fight between impostors.

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

The year I first swam in the Mediterranean. The year my wife became pregnant again. The year I finally finished Homage to Catalonia. The year I finally began a new novel. The year I fell in love with Diego Velázquez. The year of questionable decisions in a Neapolitan disco. The year I learned about kombucha. The year I would move overseas for a while. The year I would sometimes wonder why I’d ever come back. The year of the Trump hole. The year of YouTubing Mr. Rogers for self-medication. The year everybody needed to get the f*** off the Internet. The year of spectacular mid-Atlantic fall.

I’ve always believed in the idea of a zeitgeist, but there are years when the local topography feels especially entangled with the global map. 2016, for me at least, was not one of those. When I look back, I can’t avoid the sense of democratic crisis in Europe, or the open conflagration in the Middle East, or the airborne toxic event that was the U.S. presidential election. Winter may well be coming. Yet I also remember, at the more intimate level on which life is mostly lived, moments of mystery, adventure, and grace that seem connected to some other story entirely. Nowhere were those moments more readily available than in the books I chose to read. Perhaps it’s most accurate to say, then, that 2016 was a year that gave me plenty of reasons to keep reading.

As ever, it’s hard to settle on a single title to recommend above any other, but I think I can get the list of absolute best things I read this year down to four. Around the start of a three-month sojourn in Barcelona, I tackled Javier Cercas’s The Anatomy of a Moment, and found it to be be one of the most penetrating, mature, and nuanced books about politics ever written. Cercas’s ostensible subject is the coup that nearly toppled Spain’s fragile democracy in the early ’80s. It’s a story he unfolds with a characteristic blend of factual scruple and novelistic technique: the pacing is Three Days of the Condor by way of 24 Hour Psycho. Underneath, though, is an argument about heroism that feels both true and profoundly at odds with our usual assumptions. In the context of a government of men, Cercas suggests, real and durable greatness is marked by compromises, trade-offs, disappointments, and missed opportunities, rather than their absence. Not to give away the ending, but maybe politics is more like real life than we’d like to imagine.

While in Iberia, I also read José Saramago’s Blindness, and immediately regretted the 20 years it took me to pick it up. It, too, works as a kind of political allegory, with hard-to-miss Platonic overtones, but even more than Cercas, Saramago sees power relations as emergent properties of the whole rich mess of human experience: love, sex, death, community. That he can convey this richness with such impoverished means — the characters are all, for most of the novel, imprisoned in a building they can’t see — is a miracle of art. As beautiful and harrowing as its obvious model, The Plague (and for my money more lifelike in its intimacies), this is a novel people will still be reading in 100 years, if they’re still reading at all. Or indeed, still alive on planet Earth.

Another discovery for me this year, though of a different sort, was the Finnish-Swedish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. Best known for her ingenious Moomin comics, Jansson also wrote several books aimed at adults, including the The Summer Book. Not much happens in this portrait of a headstrong girl and her equally headstrong grandmother and the island where they spend their summers, but that’s the novel’s great virtue. The Summer Book is pure loveliness. The movements of tides and winds and boats and insects loom larger for our narrator than the currents of history, and the profound quiet of the setting — I’m reminded of Akhil Sharma’s description of a prose like “white light” — allows us to hear Jansson’s  unsparing and ironic tenderness, a tone that remains purely her own, even in translation.

The fourth of my European discoveries this year was Christopher Isherwood. I was on my way to Berlin and, like the guy who wears the concert tee-shirt to the actual concert, decided to take Goodbye to Berlin. What drew me in initially was Isherwood’s (to my ear) flawless prose, which by itself would put him in a select group of 20th-century English novelists. But the real rewards were the book’s surprising scope and depth. For my money, Isherwood and his fictional avatar cast a more comprehensive eye on their moment than Evelyn Waugh or Henry Green or even Graham Greene. The novel walks the tragicomic line with an irreproachable poker face, and so maybe sets an example for us all in these shall-we-say interesting times.

Later, back on U.S. soil, I found myself allergic to my traditional time-waster, the newspaper, and so tried to escape into the news of other periods, to restore some perspective. Around the time of the party conventions, I read Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and (though it’s an odd kind of compliment) found it to be Norman Mailer’s most disciplined performance, and one that still resonates today. Barbarians at the Gate, which I found for a dollar at a library book sale in Maine, has likewise aged well, in part because the rank self-dealing it depicts now seems a kind of national ethos. As for Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: The Ascent…well, I guess it says something that I turned to this for refuge. Much was made earlier this year of certain historical parallels, but even as it reminds us that “it can happen here,” the book is also detailed enough to illuminate the ways it’s not happening here, not yet, and needn’t ever, unless we let it.

As for contemporary fiction, I read a lot of what you might call flaneurial fiction, fiction in the shadow of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and maybe Robert Walser’s The Walk. I finally read, for example, Teju Cole’s Open City, a New York novel of exquisite intelligence and refinement, weaving together urban anomie, the history of Dutch colonialism, and the aftermath of September 11. I read Valeria Luiselli’s haunting debut, Faces in the Crowd (which does the same for Harlem, potted plants, and Federico García Lorca), and Álvaro Enrigue’s psychedelic Sudden Death (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, tennis, the conquest of the Americas). Then, in search of further antecedents, I read, belatedly, Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co., whose wit and melancholy sent me on a Vila-Matas bender.

In a somewhat different vein, I read Amit Chaudhuri’s beautiful Odysseus Abroad and Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. These are flaneurial novels in the sense of being plotless, but for the essayistic digressions of a Cole or a Luiselli, they substitute the momentum of a quest, a walk with a destination. And each, I think, further complicates the ongoing debate about fictiveness and authenticity. Though neither hides its “reality hunger,” exactly, each deploys on its autobiographical material a novelistic imagination as powerful as anything in Charles Dickens…it’s just tucked in the corners, where you don’t quite notice it. The result in each case is a work where the world and the word are beautifully in balance. (In August, when I finally got around to Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, I was reminded that this subtle form of transformation is an old-fashioned form of magic.)

As for current fiction that more fully gratifies my own imagination hunger, I can point to Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins, a tour de force of wit, suspense, and history. I can point to Nathan Hill’s The Nix, whose disparate concerns — video games, parental neglect, political anger — are bound together by the warmth, charm, and wit of the author’s voice. And I can point to Don DeLillo’s Zero K, whose extraordinary final pages seem a capstone for the author’s work of the last 20 years. To quote DeLillo himself (writing of Harold Brodkey), it’s been one of “the great brave journeys of American literature.”

Finally, speaking of great, brave journeys, I can’t look back on this year without talking about Go Down, Moses. I’ve been reading my way through the Faulkner oeuvre for almost 20 years now, and am down to what I think of as the “third shelf;” soon I’ll be left with only Requiem for a Nun and Soldier’s Pay. I’ve put off reading GD,M in its entirety because many of the short stories it collects are available in other forms; I don’t know how many different versions of “The Bear” I’ve read in my lifetime. But Go Down, Moses, taken as a whole, is really a novel, and one that reminds me of all the novel can do, as in this description of Sam Feathers’s wilderness grave:
the tree, the other axle-grease tin nailed to the trunk, but weathered, rusted, alien too yet healed already into the wilderness’ concordant generality, raising no tuneless note, and empty, long since empty of the food and tobacco he had put into it that day, as empty of that as it would presently be of this which he drew from his pocket — the twist of tobacco, the new bandanna handkerchief, the small paper sack of the peppermint candy which Sam had used to love; that gone, too, almost before he had turned his back, not vanished but merely translated into the myriad life which printed the dark mold of these secret and sunless places.
The dark mold, the secret and sunless places, yes, but also the axle-grease and the peppermint candy, the specific, local, and alive, and the living generality that heals it all together. It’s an act of imagination on Faulkner’s part, and on his reader’s, but no less real — in fact more real — for it. And maybe in the most sunless part of this generally dark year, that’s reason enough for hope.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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