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.