The Imposter by Javier Cercas, translated by Frank Wynne (Man Booker International Prize 2018) “Reality kills and fiction saves.”

Javier Cercas is unashamedly forthright about his own personal objections to writing this book right from the beginning.

Suddenly I felt that, though I had twice given up on the story, it had been through a lack of courage, because I sensed that in the old man (Marcos) something was hiding that interested me, or profoundly concerned me and I was afraid to discover what it was. p. 51

As long as we’re revealing inner thoughts, I must confess that I am more interested in Cercas’ revelations about his own life, and that of a writer, than I am about Enric Marcos’ life. It doesn’t matter much to me that he lied, and presented himself as someone he was not, as much as what his actions imply: that lies are built on many small truths, and therefore they hide the whole truth. So what would have made Marcos build a life of lies, posing as an imposter, in the first place?

Enric is like Quixote: he could not resign himself to a mediocre existence, he wanted to live life on a grand scale; and since he did not have the wherewithal, he invented it. p. 31

Cercas says he was afraid that in writing his book, he would somehow be justifying the actions of Enric Marcos. And then he remembers a quote by Tzvetan Todorov:

Understanding evil is not to justify it, but the means of preventing it from occurring again. p. 53

Which is, of course, one of the the main reasons for studying history in the first place.

In presenting himself as someone he was not, in mixing small truths with big lies, was Enric Marcos inherently evil? Cercas says that Marcos’ “narcissistic lie (saying that he was in Flossenburg, a Nazi concentration camp, as a prisoner) hides the truth of horror and death…it is an attempt to hide reality so as not to know or recognise it, so as not to know or recognise himself.” p. 187-188

So I read this book not because I am so terribly interested in Enric Marcos the individual, as much as I am interested in what he represents. I also found myself fascinated by the personal revelations of Cercas, as he wrote about what it means to be a writer; what it means to write fiction.

“…reality kills and fiction saves, because more often than not fiction is merely a way of disguising reality, a way of protecting oneself from it or curing oneself of it.” p. 203

While this is not a favorite of mine from the Man Booker International Prize long list of 2018, it was well loved by many on the shadow panel. It was not, however, deemed worthy of the short list by the official judges. Judging from their short list, it seems that they prefer shock value more highly. (Yet, if that was wholly true, why leave off Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz?)

Die, My Love by Ana Harwicz, (translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Die, My Love is written with such hatred and despair it was hard for me to be compassionate. At first.

It opens with a women spying on her husband and son who are playing outside, while she holds a knife in her hand. She puts it down when her husband calls to her, asking if she would like a beer.

I leave the knife in the scorched pasture, hoping that when I find it next it’ll look like a scalpel, a feather, a pin. I get up, hot and bothered by the tingling between my legs. Blonde or dark? Whatever you’re having, my love. We’re one of those couples who mechanise the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other. I never want to see you again, my love. I’m coming, I say, and I’m a fraud of a country woman with a red polka-dot skirt and split ends. I’ll have a blonde beer, I say in my foreign accent. I’m a woman who’s let herself go, has a mouth full of cavities and no longer reads.

You can see right away that the word “love” is a mockery. There is no love in this woman’s heart; only cruelty, despair and hate. Hers is a visceral outcry of utter hopelessness, and one is compelled to keep reading similarly to the way one cannot tear oneself away from a train wreck. You don’t really want to see it, but you can’t quite turn away from the disaster and ruin.

I thought at first she may be suffering from something like post-partum depression. Then, I thought she may be simply tired of marriage and living in the country with her husband, baby and mother-in-law. But, the further I read, the more I came to feel that this unnamed female narrator is mentally unbalanced. There’s no way, please God, that she could be speaking for wives and mothers everywhere.

Some of the Shadow Jury has likened Die, My Love to Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, and in terms of torment, and fevered pitch, I can see the similarities. But, Fever Dream has a cause: the polluted river poisoning the environment with no one doing anything about it. This is a woman living a life about which she seems unable to do anything. Even if it is only internally, she threatens and screams, absorbed with herself on every page.

She imagines herself run over by the neighbors who have tired of her standing in the middle of the country road. At the funeral in her head she notices that, “No one grieves for the wretched woman with scarred arms who was consumed by the misery of life. Everyone fusses over the little boy who’s crawling around on all fours near the coffin.”

Such an internal focus, rawly articulated on every page, alarms me, even though the power of her emotion is undeniably well conveyed.

Addendum, several days later: If the purpose of translated literature is to take you beyond experiences you know, or open your eyes to see a fresh perspective, Die, My Love is the best of the lot.