Outlaws (Javier Cercas, 2014)

The fifty-eight-year-old Javier Cercas made his latest breakthrough outside of Spain with his novel “Anatomy of a Moment”, which the most important Spanish daily newspaper “El Pais” named Book of the Year in 2009. The well-known Argentinian author Albert Manguel had praised this novel, which revolves around the failed military coup in 1981. It received the Premio Nacional de Narrativa.

In the immediate post-Franco era, Cerca’s new novel is also centered around a criminal youth gang. We go back to 1978 in the Catalan city of Gerona, where the author Cercas grew up and still teaches as a professor of Spanish literature. This is evident in the highly formal implementation of his “material”. Cercas is very ambitious with a “book-within-a-novel” construction. The novel reports on the creation of a book about a juvenile offender in the form of interviews. Companions disclose their different memories to a largely “silent” non-fiction author, thus creating a double game with reality and fiction. A statement stands against a statement, an intended, constructed blur accompanies the reader through the entire plot.

The focus of the novel is on the two 16-year-olds, Ignacio Cañas and Antonio Gamallo (called “El Zarco”), who can’t be more different from each other and who happen to meet in a gaming room. Ignacio grew up as the son of an official, while El Zarco lived in a makeshift shelter on the outskirts “under the scum of the scum”. Crass opposites collide: on the one hand the shy, often harassed in his school as “snake glasses” Ignacio, opposite him is the alpha animal in a Quinqui gang. The only thing they have in common is that they are outsiders. Ignacio feels outcast as “Charnego”, the sprout of a family that migrated from Extremadura to Catalonia, and El Zarco, as leader of the “Quinqui” (a slang term for juvenile criminals) lives on the periphery of society. At Zarco’s side there is always the tantalizingly drawn “tere” that seduces the shy son of a civil servant when they meet in the toilet for the first time.

When the shy-type Ignacio, who helps out in a gaming salon during school holidays, reports “El Zarco” and “Tere” about the owner’s earnings, opening hours, and habits, fate takes its course. Ignacio drifts more and more into the sphere of the underworld, he starts to smoke weed, romps around in the red light environment and takes part in raids, break-ins and other crimes. After a spectacular bank robbery, the paths split again quite abruptly. El Zarco goes to prison, and the wounded Ignacio manages to fight his way through to his parents and return to the path of virtue. The shot was not only a painful experience, but also a kind of rescue from the criminal Quinqui milieu.

The second part of the opulent narrative is then set shortly before the turn of the millennium and reports on the renewed encounter. Ignacio has now established himself as a lawyer, El Zarco has had a long “prison career” with several spectacular outbreaks and has become a nationally known figure in the media. Quinqui, called “El Vaquilla”, obviously served as a real model. Up to this point, this novel, spoken with economical linguistic means, is willingly and highly banned. The frequent crossings of young people across borders (the original title of the novel is aptly “Las leyes de la frontera”, dt: the laws of the border) in the phase of still unstable democracy is bound up with a slightly mythical, breath of freedom.

At the end of this novel, which is also relevant as a historical (semificative) panorama, it unfortunately becomes very cheesy. Teresa, Zarco’s former companion, appears in the representative office, becomes Ignacio’s mistress, and together they want to fight for Zarco’s freedom. This is rather unfortunate. In this case, less would have definitely been more.

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