Archive for the ‘Javier Cercas’ Category

Even the Darkest Night

July 11, 2022

Javier Cercas quickly leaves the reader in no doubt that his latest novel, Even the Darkest Night (originally Terra Alta – literally ‘high land’ – a title that was temporarily attached to its UK publication) is a crime novel. “Two dead at the Adell country house,” is our third sentence, preceded only by the briefest of introductions to our central character, Melchor. Within a page however, we know he is married with a daughter, has only lived in Terra Alta for four years, and has a love of Les Miserables – the novel not the musical. And, in reference to the murders, according to his superior, Blai:

“What a shitstorm this is going to be.”

As befits a writer of Cercas’ standing, however, he knows when to slow the pace, and the murder scene itself is described in detail. The Adells, husband and wife, owners of the town’s largest business, have not simply been killed but extensively tortured beforehand:

“Two bloody masses of red and violet flesh face each other on a sofa and armchair soaked in a lumpy liquid – a mixture of blood, entrails, cartilage and skin – which has spattered the walls, the floor, and even as far as the fireplace.”

In every other way the murders (there are three as the live-in maid has also been killed) seem professional – the security system has been switched off in advance, and the only trace of the killers is a tyre print, but the make (Continental) is too common for this to be useful. This raises the suspicion that they were tortured in order extract information, but what that might be no-one can guess. The murders themselves are unusual in a town were, when he arrived, Melchor was told, “nothing ever happens.”

The novel, however, is more than the story of the crime; it is also Melchor’s story, and that is where Cercas has created an interesting and unusual hero. In the second chapter we go back to Melchor’s birth:

“His mother’s name was Rosario and she was a prostitute.”

Unsurprisingly, Melchor’s life does not go smoothly. At fourteen he is expelled from school, and by fifteen he is in front of a Juvenile Court. Cercas teases us with the opportunities Melchor has to turn over a new leaf – after all we know he is now a policeman – for example, when the judge decides to give him a second chance, or his mother tells him, “if you’re going to carry on living the way you were living before, I don’t want you in this house.” On each occasion, however, he goes deeper into the world of crime instead. Eventually he ends up in prison and it is there, after the shock of his mother’s violent death, that he begins to educate himself. Via a French prisoner, he encounters Les Miserables, identifying with Jean Valjean, but coming to admire Javert:

“But most of all he thought of Javert, of Javert’s hallucinatory rectitude, of Javert’s integrity and his scorn for evil, of Javert’s sense of justice, and Javert would never allow his mother’s murderer to go unpunished.”

This is the type of policeman Melchor will become, one who is relentless in his pursuit of justice, a quality which does not always sit easily with the practicalities of policing. We see this first in his determination to solve his mother’s murder, in particular his search for the prostitute who was with her when she met her final clients. This, of course, he does secretly, outside of his new role as a police officer. We also learn that he routinely beats up anyone he learns abuses women: although he is now on the other side of the law, he still retains a dark side. This is seen in the incident that leads to his posting to Terra Alta where he shoots four terrorists dead. He is regarded as a hero, but it is thought best he lie low for a while and so, for a second time, he must deny his past. To counter- balance this, Cercas gives him a happy family life, with a wife and young daughter.

The novel proceeds with a chapter set in the present followed by one telling the story of Melchor’s past – his arrival in Terra Alta, how he met his wife. Just as he did with the novel’s dramatic opening, Cercas surprises us again at the beginning of it’s second part when the case is closed unsolved. Of course, we know by now that Melchor will have difficulty accepting this. Cercas also returns to the subject that made his name, telling us of the quiet town:

“He did know that eighty years earlier, towards the end of the Civil War, it had been the site of the bloodiest battle in the history of Spain.”

The suggestion is that such violence can occur anywhere, and can have repercussions.

In the end, the solution to the mystery is satisfying, although it does rely on an unsolicited confession delivered personally to Melchor. It is the character’s backstory and the thematic resonance of Les Miserables (both, admittedly, bringing a certain amount of implausibility in their wake) that lift the novel beyond the ordinary thriller. I suspect it will not be the last we see of Terra Alta.


July 4, 2014

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Javier Cercas’ novels exist on the border between fiction and non-fiction. His last work, The Anatomy of a Moment, was an examination of an attempted Francoist coup in 1981. His latest, Outlaws, is also concerned with the aftermath of Franco’s death, beginning, as it does, in 1970s Spain. It tells the story of teenage criminal, gang leader and self-styled rebel Zarco, largely through the eyes of his friend and accomplice Canas. Canas makes an unlikely bank robber coming, as he does, from a stable, middle class family; he is regarded by all as a quiet, studious boy until he meets Zarco. Canas’ culpability in all that follows is just one of the questions that the novel forces us to consider.

While Zarco is undoubtedly an influence on Canas, it is Tere, whom he assumes is Zarco’s girlfriend, who attracts him to the gang (“if it hadn’t been for Tere, I most likely wouldn’t have done it”). The gang begin by stealing handbags and cars and robbing what we would call (but not the translator Anne McLean) petrol stations. After some of the members are killed and injured in a police chase, Zarco decides to use the stolen goods to purchase guns and begin robbing banks. Zarco is clearly a charismatic figure and Canas’ attitude towards him, even moderated by the fact he is telling the story many years later, is intended to represent the way he later comes to be seen by the public in general. A British equivalent might be the Great Train Robbers, who also seemed to have gained an anti-establishment tag, though I suspect that that fact that the gang are Catalans plays an important role. (As with the Great Train Robbery, there is a film version of Zarco’s life which is frequently mentioned in the text).

The novel is presented entirely as a series of questions and answers. The questioner is a writer researching a book on Zarco; Canas is the main interviewee. Other contributors are the police inspector who arrests Zarco, and the prison governor who becomes responsible for him. This style contributes considerably to the verisimilitude of the novel while at the same time creating the impression of an ongoing investigation, as if the reader were approaching some kind of truth. Cercas cleverly avoids interviews with the other two main protagonists, Zarco and Tere, leaving us to view them only through the eyes of others. This makes their characters harder to define as even Canas’ perception of them both changes over time, but that is one of the ways the novel leaves the reader uncertain in their reaction to the novel’s protagonists.

The novel is divided into two parts with a gap of around twenty years in between. In that time Canas has become a successful lawyer; Zarco has spent the period in prison. What has changed for him is his place in the world:

“…for Zarco everything went very fast. In fact, my impression is that when I knew him in the late seventies, Zarco was a sort of precursor, and when I saw him again in the late nineties, he was almost an anachronism, if not a posthumous persona.”

Canas becomes Zarco’s lawyer and begins a publicity campaign designed to free him from prison. Zarco appears self-obsessed and manipulative, but it could also be argued that Canas is using his notoriety to further his own career. Simultaneously, Canas begins a relationship with Tere. Is he only helping Zarco to be with her? Is she only sleeping with him as long as he aids Zarco? Such questions are never given simple answers, with even the protagonists themselves apparently unsure of their motivations. (One of the novel’s great strengths is the way it relentlessly questions why we do things).

Cercas also links changing attitudes to Zarco to Spain’s move towards democracy. His youthful rebellion coincides with throwing off the repressive regime of Franco, but twenty years later his actions appear selfish and immature; he has become the perpetual victim (but, then, he is a victim, having never been given the chance that Canas got). Once again Cercas seems determined to take a scalpel to Spain’s history, in a novel that has elements of both thriller and courtroom drama, but is ultimately a character study of three characters who cannot untangle themselves.