“Outlaws” by Javier Cercas

Outlaws CoverIt is the summer of 1978: General Franco, the military dictator who ruled Spain with an iron fist since the end of the Spanish Civil War, is dead. The economy is in tatters and a new, democratic Spain is in the making. It is a time in which the old rules crumble and the new are not yet established. And in this summer, the novel’s main protagonist, Gafitas, joins a gang of young delinquents from the wrong side of the tracks who are led by the charismatic Zarco.

Gafitas is different to the other quinquis in the gang, who live in a poor suburb made from barracks, the so-called pre-fabs on the outskirts of the small Catalan town of Gerona and hang out in the bars of the red light district, Le Font. He is “a middle-class teenager taking a walk on the wild side.”

Joining the gang feels like a way out from being bullied at school, as does hiding away in a games parlour where he plays the Rocky-Balboa-themed pinball machine and helps out the old, kindly proprietor. He is drawn to the group of petty criminals in part by a sense of adventure, but mainly because of his attraction to the enigmatic Tere, who might or might not be Zarco’s girlfriend.

After a few break-ins, the group graduates to hold-ups and then bank robberies until it inevitably all goes wrong. The police receives a tip-off and the gang’s last bank robbery ends in a wild car chase, Zarco’s arrest. Gafitas miraculously escapes and subsequently returns to his family life. Up to this point, the novel is an absorbing, if straight-forward and at times action-packed, crime story set in the anything-goes atmosphere of the transicion period where the fraying of the old social fabric, the decay of the dual authority of Catholic Church and fascist police apparatus is exemplified by the increasingly daring exploits of the Zarco gang.

The work of Spanish author Javier Cercas, a former Professor of literature at the University of Gerona, is famous for exploring the legacies of the Franco dictatorship. Outlaws is no exception and the narrative takes a turn into more complex territory after the arrest of Zarco.

Fast forward 30 years. Gafitas now a successful criminal lawyer is asked by the mysterious Tere to defend Zarco who has been accused of assaulting two prison guards. Zarco for his part has spent most of the intervening decades behind bars, intermittently achieving celebrity status as a media personality. He has managed to turn himself “into the heroic outlaw that, for the journalists and even for some historians, embodies the yearning for liberty and the frustrated hopes of the heroic years of the change from dictatorship to democracy in Spain.”

In the second part of the novel, the story unfolds in a more multifaceted way. The first person narration turns out to be Gafitas telling his version of the events – both his time as a young man with the gang and later reconnecting with Tere and Zarco as a lawyer– to a journalist who is researching the true story behind the Zarco gang. Gafitas’ story is supplemented and sometimes contrasted with accounts by the police officer who pursued the gang in 1978 and failed to arrest Gafitas, as well as the prison commander overseeing Zarco’s incarceration.

This narrative ploy allows Cercas to explore the gaps between self-perception and the view of others and to reveal alternative versions of the stories behind the public façade of Zarco and his exploits. In doing so he creates an insightful portrait of Zarco as a man who struggles and in the end fails to emerge from the myth he has invented for himself, confirming the prison commander’s dry assessment that “real tough guys are almost always unfortunate men.” Yet, it isn’t just Zarco who fails to free himself, both literally and figuratively. Tere and Gafitas are also imprisoned by the events of 1978, unable to break away from the personas they constructed for themselves to reveal their true selves to each other.

There is a profound sense of disillusionment that permeates the book on both a personal and political level, an atmosphere of missed opportunities and failures to reverse past mistakes. Thankfully, Cercas manages to avoid any middle-aged sentimentality and instead offers a rich narrative that works on many levels. It is a suspense story, keeping the reader guessing about who tipped off the police, and what Tere’s role was back then and what her motivation is now. It is also a love story, or at least a story of the ongoing and ultimately doomed infatuation of Gafitas with Tere. And in all of that, it is a compelling reflection on how we are all caught in the web of history, memory and myth we create in our youths.

Javier Cercas. Outlaws (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean). Bloomsbury

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