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Javier Cercas and The Art of the Back Story

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In his new creation, Investigator Melchor Marín, the Spanish author Javier Cercas has created an almost unique character in the history of contemporary western crime writing. A hardworking, honest, police officer in the Mossos d’Esquadra (Catalonia’s autonomous police force), who doesn’t have a drink or drug problem, doesn’t womanise, and isn’t in a constant daily battle with his bosses. He’s a family guy, devoted to his wife and young daughter, pays his mortgage on time, works hard to get home in time for dinner, stays in at night and reads. Melchor Marín appears to be a content man, living and working in a rather dreary far flung and anonymous suburb of Barcelona, a hundred miles away from the big city. Terra Alta – where nothing much ever happens. He doesn’t get overtly obsessed with every case; he is not tormented by every victim. Melchor Marín is, to all intents and purposes, a regular “poli”.

Having said all that, he’s not boring. Because Melchor Marín has one hell of a back story. Javier Cercas’s first work of detective fiction, Even the Darkest Night (translated by Anne McLean), is the commencement of an intended series. It is ostensibly about a violent triple murder – the gruesome slaying of a Terra Alta business family and their Romanian maid. But Even the Darkest Night is also about the boy and the young man Melchor Marín was before he joined the Mossos. Cue flashbacks to trouble in the Barcelona back streets, young Marín a working-class wild boy, working for a Colombian cartel with deep roots in Spain. He gets a stint in jail and while there his prostitute mother is murdered in an unsolved case, swiftly forgotten by the Guàrdia Urbana de Barcelona. Events that all conspired into Marin’s jailhouse compulsion to wipe the slate clean, start over and become a detective. And he does, in Barcelona, with his past erased from the files by a friendly lawyer. His new life is going well – days policing Barcelona and his nights spent trying to track down his mother’s murderers. Until chance sees him wipe out an Islamist terrorist hell bent on wreaking havoc in the city. His bosses, fearing retribution, move him to the far suburbs where he disappears, becomes an anonymous investigator, marries the local librarian, starts a family. But, of course, the murders in Terra Alta and his past will come back to haunt him, collide, and lead to a tragedy that drives Marín even harder. I’m afraid any more would be spoilers.

Up until Even the Darkest Night Cercas’s work was invariably rooted in nonfiction. Highly literate and invariably meditative, but always centred around real stories, moments in history, ethical choices faced by individuals, or the Spanish nation – the 1936-1939 fratricidal Civil War, the years of the Franco dictatorship, the country’s re-emergence as a democracy from the mid-1970s. His breakthrough book, the one that brought Cercas to widespread public recognition in Spain and beyond was Soldiers of Salamis (2001). It raised issues of how Spain should look back on and regard the Civil War, whether to formally commemorate it or not and how, and who best to remember and who forget? The book mixes elements of fiction, biography, and questioning monologue, to explore issues of historical memory and the nature of heroism.

A later book, The Anatomy of a Moment (2011) is, essentially, also a nonfiction investigation, this time of the failed 1981 coup d’etat staged in Spain. The anti-democratic coup was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero Molina of the Guardia Civil (Spain’s national police force). Once again Cercas mixed fact and historical interpretation with fictionalised viewpoints. He then moved into more dedicated fiction with Outlaws (2014), which follows a group of working-class kids in late 1970s Spain moving from the poor south to the cities of the north in search of a better life. Once again though, despite being a novel, Outlaws is peppered with meditations on the Spanish justice system, the drugs culture of the time, and the iniquities of prison life.

Cercas’s most recent book, The Imposter (2018), returned largely to his trademark hybrid mix of narrative, history, essay, and biography, to reconstruct the life and motivations of the real-life compulsive liar Enric Marco. Known to pretty much everyone in Spain, constantly on TV and visiting schools, Marco claimed to be a Republican veteran of the Spanish Civil War, a fighter against fascism, an impassioned campaigner for justice, and a survivor of two Nazi concentration camps – Mauthausen and Flossenbürg. His reputation meant that after the war he rose to become a leader of one of Spain’s biggest labour unions. None of it was true. His 2005 uncovering was a national shock, forcing Marco to confront his own personality, and for much of Spain to ask itself some painful questions about the country’s past too.

I suggested to Cercas, at home in Barcelona, that his earlier works prior to his current foray into crime fiction were all ultimately ‘investigations’? Cercas agreed. ‘In fact, all my previous novels are also detective novels, at least in the sense that at the core of all of them there is an enigma. In this sense, as in many others, Even the Darkest Night is not a detour…but an attempt at reinvention in which, inevitably, I remain faithful to some themes that are essential to my way of seeing things.’

Part-investigative procedural, part-contemporary noir, Even the Darkest Night is at heart a revenge tragedy, a story of multiple betrayals and loyalties with a Cercas-trademark meditation on redemption. Many of Cercas’s repeated interests are apparent in Even the Darkest Night, those issues he constantly returns to – Spain’s harsh history of civil war, political violence, simmering grief and resentments all lie in the shadows of the tale. He describes the hot, dry Terra Alta terrain as, ‘…a place that has a feel of a Western, with an almost Western landscape.’ But here too are evidenced the frictions and fault-lines of contemporary 2017 Spain. The very real threat from Islamist terror as well as the deeply-felt internal disputes over the possibility and desirability of Catalan independence. Who is, and who is not, an españolazo – a loyal Spaniard – at this crucial juncture in the nation’s history, and what exactly that means, are threads that weave throughout the novel. Again, perhaps as important as the questions of who was, and who was not, for either the Republic or Franco eighty years previously.

Javier Cercas is a literary man. He is also a Professor of Spanish Literature at Catalonia’s University of Girona. And so it’s perhaps not surprising that Melchor Marín should be of a literary bent too. Marín’s decision to turn his back on the cartels, to study for the police force, to turn his life around, is inspired by his prison reading of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862). His love of Hugo’s novel is such that Marín has named his only daughter Cosette (the little girl mistreated and abandoned before being raised by Jean Valjean as his own).  Of course, were Cercas to be a more obvious sort of writer, his protagonist’s hero would be Valjean – struggling to lead a normal life and avoid social stigma after serving a prison sentence, as indeed Marín is. But his hero is not Valjean, the man who spends two decades attempting to reform himself and lead a normal life, but instead the less obvious Inspector Javert. Javert is a legalist, a man obsessed with the pursuit and punishment of criminals, wholly lacking in empathy. Questioned by his wife about his preference for Javert over Valjean, Marín declares Hugo’s inspector a ‘false bad guy’ (a little meta-texting from Cercas here). Throughout Marín applies his own version of WWJD – What Would Javert Do?

Despite Even the Darkest Night following many of the conventions of a conventional crime novel Cercas claims not to consider himself specifically a fan of crime fiction, but rather, ‘a fan of good literature, and sometimes crime literature is good literature, and some writers who specialize in it are great writers.’ When pushed for some recommendations he cites Don Winslow’s Cartel Trilogy for special praise.

In Even the Darkest Night Melchor Marín may solve the murders in Terra Alta, but at a terrible cost as he has only just begun to deal with the devils and demons of his past. Those are yet to be faced down as Marín’s story continues and Cercas expands the Terra Alta universe.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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