Javier Cercas, on fiction, faking, and Enric Marco

I’ll use the introductory paragraph for Enric Marco article in Wikipedia first:

Enric Marco (12 April 1921 – 21 May 2022) was a Catalonian impostor who claimed to have been a prisoner in Nazi German concentration camps Mauthausen and Flossenbürg in World War II. He was awarded the Creu de Sant Jordi by the Catalan government in 2001 and wrote a book on his experiences. In 2005 he admitted his claims were false and returned his medal, after his deception was revealed by university researcher Benito Bermejo.

Javier Cercas takes the case of Enric Marco as intriguing material for a novelist and tells both Marco’s story and the story of the novelist from the moment he encounters Marco. The passage below is one of the examples where the novel adopts an essayistic mode.

Cercas, J. (2017). The Impostor (F. Wynne, Trans.). Maclehose Press.

Like Marco, the novelist does not create his fiction out of nothing: he creates it from his own experience; like Marco, the novelist knows that pure fiction does not exist and that, if it did exist, it would not be remotely interesting, and no-one would believe it, because reality is the basis, the fuel that drives fiction: and so, like Marco, the novelist creates his fictions by painting and distorting historical and biographical truth, by mixing truth and lies, what actually happened with what he wished had happened, or what would have seemed interesting or fascinating if it had happened, but did not happen. Like Marco, who studied history and listened carefully to the central characters of history and assimilated their stories, the novelist knows that he needs a foundation for his lies and this is why he researches thoroughly, so that he can thoroughly reinvent reality. Marco, moreover, has all the qualities required of a novelist: energy, fantasy, imagination, memory and, more than anything, a love of words; almost more so for the written than the spoken word: from the first, Marco has not only been an indiscriminate reader, he has also been a compulsive writer, author of countless stories, poems, articles, biographical fragments, manifestos, reports and letters of every kind that clutter his archives and have been sent to countless people and institutions. Vargas Llosa is right: Marco is a genius because he succeeds at everything, in real life and for many years in what great novelists only partly achieve in their novels, and even then only for as long as it takes to read them; that is to say, he deceives thousands and thousands of people, making them believe that he was someone that he was not, that something that did not truly exist actually existed and that what is actually a lie is in fact the truth. But Marco’s genius, of course, is only partial. Unlike great novelists, who in exchange for a factual lie deliver a profound, disturbing, elusive, irreplaceable moral and universal truth, Marco delivers only a sickly, insincere, mawkishly sentimental story that from the historical or moral point of view is pure kitsch, pure lies; unlike Marco, great novelists make it possible, through their paradoxical truth – to know and recognize the real, to know ourselves and recognize ourselves, to gaze into the reflecting waters of Narcissus without dying. So, of Marco is a genius, is he also monstrous? And if he is, why is he?

The answer is obvious: because what he did is something that can be done in novels, but not in life; because the rules of a novel are different from the rules of life. In novels, it is not only acceptable to lie, it is obligatory: the factual lie is the path to literary truth (and this is why Gorgias says that he who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive); in life, on the other hand, as in history or in journalism, lying is “an accursed vice”, to quote Montaigne, a baseness and an act of violence and a lack of respect and a violation of the first rule of human coexistence. The result of mixing a truth with a lie is always a lie, except in novels, where it is a truth. Marco deliberately confused fiction and life: he should have mixed truth and lies in the former, not the latter: he should have written a novel. Perhaps if he had written a novel he would not have done as he did. Perhaps he is a frustrated novelist. Or perhaps he is not, and perhaps he could not settle for writing a novel but wanted to live it. Marco turned his life into a novel. This is why he seems monstrous: because he did not accept who he was and had the audacity and the effrontery to invent himself out of lies; because in life, lies are a bad thing, whereas they are a good thing in novels. All, needless to say, except a novel without fiction or true story. All novels other than this one.

” (pp. 204-5)