It’s that time of year again: the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was announced (16 books and the only one I’ve read so far is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness), followed immediately by the Man Booker International Prize longlist (13 books and I hadn’t read any of them). The only way to calm my panic at so many books and so little time was to see what might be on the shelves at the local library and hope for the best. Of course, I do own a copy of the wonderful Han Kang’s long-listed ‘The White Book’ already, but I know how powerful and raw her writing is and so I’m saving it for the right time.
Instead, I wanted to try something completely new for my first look at the International Prize longlist and the library delivered by offering up Javier Cercas’s ‘The Imposter’. I’m aware that I haven’t read much Spanish language literature and I’ve read even less from the county of Spain itself. I also couldn’t help but notice how many of the books selected seem to play genre games as they self-consciously flip between fiction, memoir, biography. If I liked ‘The Impostor’ it could be both my entry into Spanish literature and the mind-sets of the judging panel for this year’s prize.
‘The Impostor’ is the combined story of the author as he struggles, researches and writes his biography of Enric Marco, the Catalonian who became a celebrity survivor of deportation and incarceration only to be revealed as a liar and fraud in 2005. Cercas writes as if his topic is familiar to his audience, a flattering assumption about the international knowledge of the English language readers who will hopefully pick up the book following its nomination. Personally, I’d never heard of Marco or his story before, but then the insider view of a new culture and country is exactly why I love The Man Booker International Prize. ‘The Impostor’ is a deeply Spanish book; For Cercas, the reason Marco was able to pass himself off as a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp and even become the president of the Amical de Mauthausen, the main Spanish association for survivors of Mauthausen can only be explained through his relationship with the nation’s sense of self and memory:
Marco invented a past for himself (or embellished or gilded it) at a moment when, all around him in Spain, almost everyone was embellishing, or gilding up, or inventing a past; Marco reinvented his life at a moment when the entire country was reinventing itself. This is what happened during the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain. With Franco dead, almost everyone began to construct a past to better face the present and prepare for the future
Along with presenting his subject as a metaphor for national identity, Cercas also explicitly looks at the responsibilities of story tellers in society. He discusses how Marco can be seen as a modern Don Quixote, that most famous Catalan madman, while comparing himself as the author of a non-fiction novel to Truman Capote writing ‘In Cold Blood.’
It’s a lot of unreliable storytelling, philosophical musing and cultural analysis to fit into a single book. Possibly the best praise I can offer is that it never gets bogged down in its own arguments. Frank Wynne’s translation conveys the most complex ideas about the nature of memory, fiction and national identity with clarity and precision, never letting the messiness of real life seep into the style of the writing. In the short term, it’s made me eager to read more of this year’s longlist (I’m especially looking forward to Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’). In the long term, it’s brought home how much I’ve been missing by not seeking out more Spanish literature. Let’s forget what I wrote earlier about panicking over reading lists, please let me know what Spanish books I should read and review so that Cercas won’t be the sole representative of his county on my blog for too long.