A True Story
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Copyright © 2018 Javier CercasISBN: 978-1-5247-3281-3
All rights reserved.
I did not want to write this book. I didn't know exactly why I did not want to write it, or rather I did, but did not want to acknowledge it, or did not dare acknowledge it; or not entirely. 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 always the last to be written. This 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 have known since the beginning but did not want to acknowledge, or did not dare acknowledge; or not entirely. What I did not know until now is that my fear was completely warranted.
I met Enric Marco in June 2009, four years after he became the great impostor and the great pariah. Many people still remember his story. Marco was an octogenarian from Barcelona who, for almost three decades, had passed himself off as a deportado – a deportee – to Hitler’s Germany and a survivor of the Nazi camps, for three years he had been president of the Amical de Mauthausen, the principal Spanish association for survivors of Mauthausen, he had given hundreds of lectures and dozens of interviews, he had received a number of significant official distinctions, and had addressed the Spanish parliament on behalf of his supposed companions in misfortune, until it was discovered in early May 2005 that he had not been deported and had never been a prisoner in a Nazi camp. The discovery was made by an obscure historian named Benito Bermejo, shortly before the commemoration ceremony at the former Mauthausen camp to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, a ceremony at which, for the first time, a Spanish prime minister was to be in attendance and at which Marco was to play an important role, one he was forced to relinquish at the last minute after his imposture was exposed.
When I met Marco, I had just published my tenth book, The Anatomy of a Moment, but I was going through a difficult time. Even I did not understand why. My family seemed happy, the book was a success; it is true that my father had died, but he had died almost a year earlier, more than enough time to have coped with his death. The fact is that, I don’t know how, but I came to the conclusion that the blame for my depression was my recently published book: not (or not entirely) because it had left me physically and mentally exhausted; but also (or more importantly) because it was a curious book, a strange novel-without-fiction, a rigorously true story, devoid of the slightest trace of invention or imagination. I thought that this was what had killed me. Day and night I repeated a mantra to myself: “Reality kills, fiction saves.” In the meantime I was struggling to deal with anxiety and the panic attacks, I would go to sleep crying, wake up crying and spend the day hiding from people so that I could cry some more.
I decided that the solution was to write another book. Though I had no shortage of ideas, the problem was that most of them were for non-fiction narratives. But I also had ideas for fictions; three in particular: the first was a novel about a professor of metaphysics at the University of Pontificia de Comillas who falls in love like a rutting boar with a porn star and ends up travelling to Budapest to meet her personally, declare his love and ask her to marry him; the second was called Tanga and was the first of a series of crime novels featuring a detective called Juan Luis Manguerazo; the third dealt with my father and began with a scene in which I brought him back to life and we devoured fried eggs with chorizo and frogs’ legs at El Figón, a restaurant in the Cáceres of his youth where we had often eaten together.
I attempted to write these three fictions; with all three I failed. One day, my wife gave me an ultimatum: either I made an appointment with a psychoanalyst, or she made one with a divorce lawyer. I did not have time to visit the psychoanalyst that she recommended. He was a bald man, cold and twisted, with an unplaceable accent (sometimes he sounded Chilean or Mexican, sometimes Catalan, or maybe Russian), who, in our early sessions, was constantly berating me for showing up at his surgery in articulo mortis. I have spent my life making fun of psychoanalysts and their pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo; but I would be lying if I said that our sessions were not useful: at least they gave me a place where I could sob uncontrollably; but I would also be lying if I did not confess that, more than once, I felt like getting up from the couch and punching the psychoanalyst. He, for his part, attempted to guide me towards two conclusions. The first was that the blame for all my unhappiness was not my novel-without-fiction or true story, but my mother, which explained why I often left his consulting room with the urge to strangle her the next time I set eyes on her; the second conclusion was that my life was a charade and I was a charlatan, that I had chosen literature so that I could have a life that was free, happy and authentic whereas actually my life was false, servile and unhappy, that I was a guy who pretended to be a novelist, and succeeded by deceiving and cheating people; in reality I was nothing more than an impostor.
The latter conclusion eventually came to seem more plausible (and less hackneyed) than the former. And it was this that prompted me to remember Marco; Marco and a long-forgotten conversation about Marco in which I had been called an impostor.
Here I need to go back a few years, to the moment when the Marco scandal first broke. It triggered an outrage that resonated around the world, but in Catalonia, where Marco had been born and had lived almost all of his life, and where he had been a very popular man, the revelation of his imposture made a greater impression than it did anywhere else. So, even if there were no other reason, it was logical that I, too, was interested in his case. But there was another reason; furthermore, the verb “to be interested” is inadequate: rather than simply being interested in Marco’s case, I immediately came up with the idea of writing about him, as though I sensed in Marco some profound connection. This worried me; it also produced a feeling of vertigo, an inchoate dread. The truth is that all the while the scandal played out in the media I devoured everything that was written about Marco and, when I discovered that a number of people close to me knew or had known Marco or had been aware of the man, I invited them to a dinner at my house to talk about him.
The dinner took place in mid-May 2005, shortly after the story broke. At the time, I was teaching in the University of Gerona and living in the suburbs in a little semi-detached house with a garden. To the best of my recollection, in addition to my son, my wife and my sister Blanca, those present that evening included two of my colleagues in the Faculty of Arts: Anna María García and Xavier Pla. My sister Blanca was the only one of us who knew Marco well, because years earlier she and he had been on the board of FaPaC – the Federation of Associations of Parents of Schoolchildren in Catalonia – in which both had long served as vice-chair: she in the Gerona district, Marco in Barcelona. To everyone’s surprise, over dinner, Blanca painted a picture of a charming, hyperactive, flirtatious and witty old man who was desperate to appear in photographs and, without troubling to hide the affection she had felt at the time for the great impostor and the great pariah, she recounted the projects, the meetings, the anecdotes and the trips she had shared with him. Anna María and Xavier did not know Marco personally (or knew him only superficially), but both had studied the Holocaust and the Deportation and seemed as fascinated by the case as I was: Xavier, a young professor of Catalan literature, loaned me various texts concerning Marco, including the two most comprehensive biographical accounts of his life; for her part, Anna María, a veteran historian who had never abandoned the noble concept of civic responsibility instilled in the intellectuals of her generation, had friends and acquaintances in the Amical de Mauthausen, the association for camp survivors of which Marco had been president, and had been in Mauthausen a couple of days before the scandal exploded attending the commemoration ceremonies of the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, where she was among the first to hear of the discovery of Marco’s imposture; she had even dined there with Benito Bermejo, the historian who had just unmasked him. As I remember it, when we talked about Marco in the garden of my house that afternoon, Xavier and I were more baffled than anything; Blanca somewhere between being baffled and amused (though on the whole she tried to hide her amusement, perhaps for fear of shocking us); Anna María, simply outraged: over and over she said that Marco was a scoundrel, a compulsive, barefaced liar who had mocked the whole world, but in particular the victims of the most terrible crime in history. At some point, as though she had suddenly become aware of a blindingly obvious fact, Anna María said, her eyes boring into me:
“So, tell me, why did you organise this dinner? Why are you interested in Marco? You’re not thinking of writing about him?”
The three point-blank questions caught me unawares and I did not know how to answer; it was Anna María herself who broke the silence.
“Listen, Javier,” she said, very seriously, “the best thing to do about Marco is forget him. It is the worst punishment for that monstrous egotist.” Then she smiled and added: “Let's stop talking about him."
I don’t remember whether we changed the subject (I think so, though only briefly: later Marco made his presence felt again), but I remember that I did not dare to publicly admit that Anna María’s intuition was correct, that I was considering writing about Marco; I did not even dare tell the historian that, if I eventually wrote about Marco, it would not be to talk about him but to try to understand him, to try to understand why he had done what he had done. Some days later (or perhaps it was the same day) I read something in El País that reminded me of the advice or the warning Anna María had given me. It was a letter to the editor from a woman named Teresa Sala, the daughter of one of those deported to Mauthausen and herself a member of the Amical de Mauthausen. It was not the letter of an outraged woman, but rather one who felt devastated and humiliated; it said : “I do not think we need to understand the reasons for Señor Marco’s deception”; it also said: “To spend time attempting to justify his behaviour is to disparage and to fail to understand the legacy of those who were deported”; and also: “From now on, Señor Marco will have to live with his disgrace.”
It was precisely the opposite of what I thought. I thought that our primary duty was to understand. Obviously, to understand does not mean to excuse or, as Teresa Sala said, to justify; to be more exact: it means the reverse. Thought and art, I believed, attempt to explore what we are, revealing our endless, ambiguous and contradictory variety, and in doing so, mapping out our nature: Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, I thought, illuminated every nook and cranny of the moral maze, demonstrate that love can lead to murder or suicide, and succeed in making us feel compassion for psychopaths and bastards; it is its duty, I thought, because the duty of art (or of thought) consists in showing us the complexity of existence in order to make us more complex, in examining the mechanics of evil, so that we may avoid it, and even the mechanics of good, perhaps so we may understand them. I believed all these things, but Teresa Sala’s letter betrayed a desolation that I found moving; I also remembered that, in If This Is a Man, Primo Levi had written with reference to Auschwitz, or to his experience of Auschwitz, “Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify.” To understand is to justify? was the question I had asked myself years ago when I read this sentence by Levi, one I asked myself again when I read Teresa Sala’s letter? On the contrary, is it not our duty? Is it not crucial to try to understand the bewildering diversity of the real, from the most noble to the most abject? Or does this universal imperative not apply to the Holocaust? Perhaps I was wrong and there is no need to try to understand terrible evil, still less someone who, like Marco, uses terrible evil to deceive.