Interview with novelist Javier Cercas

The Spanish writer Javier Cercas's new novel examines a key moment in Spanish history.

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"William Faulkner says that the past never passes ['The past is never dead']," Javier Cercas tells me, during a conversation filled with the kind of literary and historical references that embellish his work. "The past is the stuff we are made of. When we speak about the collective past we are speaking about the personal past," he elaborates. During our conversation, indeed, he speaks about the past vividly enough to transport us to the complexities of the Spanish Civil War, the powerful subject matter of his latest novel, The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-five Minutes in History and Imagination.

Cercas developed a deep interest in the history of his country of Spain from an early age. Born there in 1962, he has since taught at the University of Illinois as well as lectured in Spanish literature at the University of Girona. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages, his 2001 novel Soldiers of Salamis being the tour de force that propelled him into international literary stardom. It sold more than a million copies worldwide, won six literary awards in Spain and was turned into a film by David Trueba.

Soldiers of Salamis tells a fictional account of a writer (called Javier Cercas) attempting to write about events in the Spanish Civil War - a subject he chooses to tackle again in the form of "historical narrative" in his compelling new book.

"Every destiny, however long and complicated, essentially boils down to a single moment," Cercas says, this time quoting Jorge Luis Borges, another of his literary inspirations, "the moment a man knows, once and for all, who he is." The idea of "the single moment" pervades Cercas's new book as he explores how the course of history can hinge upon a moment and uses that trope to create tension and suspense throughout.

It is a crucial moment in Spain's history that Cercas excavates: the dawn of new personal and political understanding. On February 23, 1981, Spain was discarding Franco's dictatorship, and Cercas was an 18-year-old university student. Lieutenant-Colonel Tejero and a band of civil guards burst into the Spanish parliament during the investiture of the new prime minister and began shooting. Three defiant members of the Cortes did not dive for cover, and it is the mystery of these men that Cercas's book probes. The book is published to mark the 30th anniversary of this coup.

In the novel, Cercas skilfully x-rays causes and consequences, motives and morality, and charts Spain's transition from dictatorship to democracy.

It is a moment, says Cercas, in which it is difficult to distinguish the real from the fictitious. At some stage, great historical characters begin to lose their status as historical characters and enter the realms of fiction, he explains, and it is the blurred line between history and fiction, stylised fact and fiction, that he explores.

"It's a strange sort of experiment with the novel: essay, chronicle, biographies, a strange book that finally I think is a novel - maybe," says Cercas, describing the intriguing form of his new book. "And yet, what is a novel? I'm trying to understand what a novel is. What can we do with that genre? I think it's a very important question."

Cercas initially finished a draft of this book as a novel, but was "full of doubts" about the form. What was real and what fiction? Was the February coup a failure or triumph of democracy?

Uncertainty proves fertile ground for a writer, allowing old genres to be challenged and new ideas to be born. As a novelist, says Cercas, he is "authorised to take liberties with reality" because "the novel is a genre that doesn't answer to reality, but only to itself," he writes. On choosing a form for his new book, however, he decided that "pure reality" mattered to him more than fiction.

There is both pleasure and pain in the act of writing, for Cercas - though he acknowledges that the difficult moments are the most fruitful. "It's a pleasure but also hard. There is suffering in it and there is a sort of adjustment with reality. You need to imagine a reality; correct reality that doesn't work; create something in which you feel OK, can control. Happiness is not good for a writer. What's natural is reading."

And Cercas is a voracious reader. "I was a reader first. I think that all writers become writers because they are readers. There is an impulse of imitation. We humans are imitators. Writing is the same thing. You read and think that's fantastic and want to imitate it."

He began as a writer by reading adventure novels, including Robert Louis Stevenson and Emilio Salgari. "Then I became aware of language," he says. "I became aware that literature was made of language. Some Latin American writers were also extremely important, like Borges. The English tradition was very important for me... The first English writer I discovered was Oscar Wilde. De Profundis is one of the best things I've read in my life. The Decay of Lying is simply fantastic."

Other writers he cites as inspirational include Evelyn Waugh, Kazuo Ishiguro and the French tradition, including Gustave Flaubert.

Of his compatriots, he deeply admires the "Golden Age" writers. "I think Don Quixote is the best novel ever written - it is incredible that a Spanish writer wrote that. The English understood that Don Quixote was the most important novel ever - Sterne, Fielding, and many more were influenced by it. One cannot understand the English novel without Cervantes. But we forgot that we invented the novel."

The Spanish-language novel is still in excellent health, as proved by the younger generation of writers collected in the Granta 113 literary magazine, which showcases "the best of young Spanish-language novelists", who continue to explore reality with exciting stylistic techniques.

"As a writer I work out of obsession. Something becomes an obsession," Cercas explains of his writing processes, and one obsession is with the mysterious territory of the past. Although he evokes the specifics of Spanish reality, he explains: "I'm not talking about politics or history but deeper reality which has a relationship with the way men are in the earth."

Indeed, as well as capturing the arc of history, Cercas evokes the minutiae of the everyday - the smell, taste, sounds of the moment, which linger in the memory. He is also an insatiable questioner. "I like the elementary questions: why did the apple fall down not up? So, what is it about these three guys [central to the coup at the narrative's heart]? Then comes the process of analysing and seeing what happened at that moment; digging in that essential moment of the 20th century, the moment when the Spanish Civil War finished. I tried to discover the morals. History is an excuse to talk about other things. What is courage? What is loyalty? What is treason?"

Cercas's writing provokes the largest questions about history and keeps us thinking and questioning long after the final page has been turned. As we part ways, the hotel courtyard seems to be teeming with ghosts of the past.

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