Outlaws by Javier Cercas

OutlawsMuch of what we know about Spanish writing has emerged from South America. While Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa and Isabel Allende are household names in many parts of the world, literature that emerges from Spain, except for Federico García Lorca and Miguel de Cervantes is relatively unknown. Many years ago when I discovered Manuel Rivas, I knew an absolute sense of delight. And it is the same delight that suffused me as I read Javier Cercas’ Outlaws.

In the late 1970s, Spain was going through a chaotic time. Dictator Francisco Franco was dead and the country was grappling with the idea of a democracy. The rural poor sought the northern cities of Spain hoping for a better life. Instead they turned into a whole new class of their own: the urban poor whose lives were desolate and living conditions grim. The children of this generation had nothing to steer them by and most of them seemed destined for a life of poverty and crime. Out of such desperation grew delinquency and it is with this that the narrative begins in the city of Gerona.

During a summer vacation, Ignacio Cañas, the 16-year-old son of a middle-rung civil servant, a quiet boy with glasses and someone routinely bullied at school, finds work in an amusement arcade. All is well until Zarco and Tere come to the arcade. Tere is the most beautiful girl Ignacio has ever seen and in his need to be with her, he chooses to join the charnego gang–a group of desperadoes destined for a violent death or jail time. By the end of summer, Ignacio finds he will never again be the boy that he was once.

He buries his past and goes onto become a well-known criminal defence lawyer. However, thirty years later when Tere appears in his office, he finds his yearning for her is just as strong as ever. He accept her request to represent Zarco, who has by then lived more than half his life in prison, and the past surfaces. And it is this that decides the course of the rest of the novel.

Zarco is someone caught between the myth of the persona he is meant to be, the large-than-life outlaw who is lionized and celebrated and the man he truly is – a drug addict, a criminal and a lost soul called Antonio Giamallo. As for Ignacio, he is perhaps just as much as lost as Zarco, though he wears the mantle of respectability and success. Perhaps the most intriguing character in the book is Tere. Ignacio thinks Tere is Zarco’s girlfriend, but there is much more to their relationship that is unveiled as the book progresses, largely in first person from different points of view: Ignacio, Inspector Cuenca, and the prison superintendent Eduardo Requena.

After the lush prose of South American Spanish writers so hallmarked by excess, be it descriptions of nature and people to goings-on that hinge between fantasy and an overheated imagination, Cercas’ prose is like taking a lungful of cold winter air. It evokes a sense of freshness and clears one’s head of everything but the story. Spare and strong, his writing evokes manifold images and emotions without resorting to verbal acrobatics. Like Rivas who can pack a knockout punch with one sentence, Cercas’ style too has the same impact.

And a note on the translation by Anne McLean. Fluid and powerful, the translation at no point makes one feel this is the English translation of a Spanish novel. Instead it is as much a work of art as the original.


Published in: The New Indian Express March 2015


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