Book review of Outlaws: In the light of what we know

A story of hope and fear that captures the mood of Spain in the aftermath of Franco’s death.

Written by Sudeep Paul | Updated: October 13, 2014 1:22 pm
outlaws-main Outlaws

Outlaws
Author: Javier Cercas Translated by Anne McLean
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 369
Price: Rs 350

The years between Franco’s death in 1975 and the consolidation of democracy in Spain in the early 1980s were tense. Not because of the Falangist rearguard’s attempts to preserve the Francoist edifice, but because of the mixture of hope and uncertainty that, for Spaniards, defined the space between freedom and fear. Spain could have tipped over during the Transition (la Transición), and came close in the February 23, 1981 (F-23) storming of parliament by Lt Colonel Antonio Tejero, only to be saved by the defiance of three men, led by Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez. In his 2009 work Anatomy of a Moment (translated 2011, McLean), Javier Cercas speculated on the motives of the men in question by studying TV footage of the attempted coup d’état — returned to public memory this June when Juan Carlos, of a disputed role in it, abdicated. Anatomy, along with the novel Soldiers of Salamis (2001, translated 2004, McLean) — a pioneering Spanish attempt to revisit the Civil War in fiction — had announced Cercas to the Anglophone reader.

Cercas says that the Transition was an unnatural experiment, as history never produces a big change without violence. F-23 was that necessary violence, or threat of violence. But the tension of la Transición manifested itself elsewhere too. The story of los quinquis (gangs of juvenile delinquents who committed crimes across Spain in the late 1970s) is the “big black hole” of the Transition that captured this duality of hope and fear. Most quinquis, mythified by the media, succumbed to violence, heroin (“the war of my generation”, says Cercas) or AIDS. Outlaws, published as Las Leyes de la Frontera (laws of the border) in 2012, begins in the summer of 1978, when Franco had been dead for three years, “but the country was still governed by Franco’s laws and still smelled exactly the same as it did under Franco: like shit.” Thus speaks Ignacio Cañas, the protagonist and lead respondent in a series of interviews conducted by an unnamed author that doubles as the narrative form. The subject is Antonio Gamallo, better known as El Zarco, of considerable celebrity in the 1980s-early 1990s. Cercas has several quinqui models, but the primary inspiration is drawn from Juan José Moreno Cuenca, aka El Vaquilla (1961-2003), acknowledged backhandedly in “Inspector Cuenca”.

Cercas writes in Castilian, the dominant dialect of Español, although he has lived mostly in the Catalan city of Gerona. Born into a family that migrated to Catalonia from Extremadura, Cercas has always been conscious of the border (“cerca” means “close” and “cercas” translates as “fences”). Cañas too is the child of internal immigrants, condescendingly called “charnegos” in late 1970s Catalonia, if poor.
Cercas’s preoccupations involve crossing the lines, between Spain and Catalonia, Castilian and Catalan, the Nationalist and Republican divide Spain never resolved but decided to put behind through the “Pact of Forgetting”, and between history and memory.

The Spanish title captures Cercas’s concerns in a way “Outlaws” cannot. Cañas and Zarco “lived very near each other, and very far from each other”. The physical distance between Cañas’s apartment block and Zarco’s home in Gerona’s red light district was barely 200 metres, but Zarco “lived over the border, across from where the River Ter and La Devesa Park marked the divide”. This “water margin”, as the adolescent Cañas named it after the then-popular Japanese TV series, marked the socio-economic distance between middle-class respectability (Cañas’s father’s “low-level position” in the city council) and the poorest charnegos. Cañas and Zarco would never have met if Zarco and his sidekick, and ostensibly his girlfriend, Tere hadn’t crossed the “border” to visit the amusement arcade where 16-year-old Ignacio had a summer job. Tere’s seducing of Ignacio in the arcade’s bathroom introduced him to Zarco’s gang, catapulting him to a summer of smoking joints, brothels and quinqui crime, culminating in a hold-up at the Banco Popular in Bordils that landed the gang, including Zarco, in jail. Cañas was saved by the unpremeditated kindness of Inspector Cuenca. He had joined Zarco’s gang for two reasons: the bullying at school, and Tere, who had an ambiguous relationship with Zarco. That was the summer of 1978. Twenty years later, Cañas is a successful criminal lawyer, into whose office walks Tere and Zarco’s fiancée María, with a request to defend Zarco, who by then had spent two decades in jail, long forgotten by the media.

While his partners relish the publicity, Cañas (“Gafitas” to Zarco and Tere because of his glasses) is driven by his sense of guilt, having suspected himself for 20 years as the beer mouth who had unwittingly tipped off informers about Bordils. Cañas gets Zarco out of jail in two years as promised, sleeping with Tere in the process, till she disappears again. Zarco never lives with María, whom he was only using to build an image of domesticity, and he’s soon back in jail. Cañas’s life and reputation are left in ruins, damaged respectively by Tere and María, who has become a celebrity exploiting Zarco’s name and spreading calumny against Cañas. Almost 30 years after the summer of 1978, Tere — revealing herself as Zarco’s cousin — visits him again. Her hold on Cañas is premised on his belief that Zarco had allowed himself to be captured in 1978 so that Cañas could escape. He now finds a frail Zarco, dying of AIDS. His own myth and reality seem to have finally become distinct to Zarco, the equation of which had resulted in tragedy. He attempts to unburden Cañas of his gratitude, claiming that he had never courted arrest to save Cañas. But Cañas cannot be sure whether this admission is in good faith, or proves he was being used by Zarco and Tere all along. His real gratitude is that Zarco had helped him grow up.

Symbolic of the Transition, Zarco embodies the freedom and fear from 1975 to F-23. The book being written on him is Cañas’s idea because “Everything has been said about Zarco but it’s all lies”. Yet, Cañas’s own doubts are “part of the truth”, which he never understands fully. While he had professed faith in Zarco, Cañas later comes to believe that the superintendent of the Gerona prison always understood Zarco better — that a character like him could never reform because the very prospect of returning to society scared him. In the end, truth depends on memory, and memory is subjective, selective and inaccurate.

Cercas, however, is not content with the absolute relativism of everything. Historical truth exists, but will never be found. Memory and history don’t let us go because the “past is a dimension of the present.” Thus, claims Cercas, “I don’t write historical novels, but novels about this bigger present that contains the past.”

Near the end, a very ill Tere tells Cañas she was the informer on Bordils. And yet, an ageing Inspector Cuenca dismisses her confession, without revealing the real informer’s identity. But Cañas doesn’t care anymore because if one “does not understand that there are things more important than the truth one doesn’t understand how important the truth is.” The apparent absence of authorial intervention because of the direct speech and McLean’s precise translation, faithful to Cercas’s original tone and subdued rhetoric, make Outlaws read deceptively simple. Therein lies the poignancy of its sadness and sense of betrayal, but without cynicism.

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