The Impos­tor: A True Story

Javier Cer­cas
  • Review
By – November 12, 2018

On Jan­u­ary 27, 2005, the Span­ish par­lia­ment, for the first time, held a cer­e­mo­ny to com­mem­o­rate Inter­na­tion­al Holo­caust Remem­brance Day. In atten­dance were Spain’s prime min­is­ter, Madrid’s chief rab­bi, the Israeli ambas­sador to Spain, and oth­er dig­ni­taries. At this his­toric event, Enric Mar­co deliv­ered a tremen­dous speech on behalf of the Span­ish sur­vivors of Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps. This moment marked, for him, the height of his pub­lic adu­la­tion and success.

Unbe­knownst to his admir­ers, Mar­co was a con man, enact­ing a giant hoax that he pre­sent­ed as his life.

Although he did not unmask him (that cred­it goes to Span­ish his­to­ri­an Ben­i­to Berme­jo), nov­el­ist and jour­nal­ist Javier Cer­cas has writ­ten an account of the imposter, peel­ing the onion skin, as he describes it, to try to get to the man him­self — to uncov­er how and why Mar­co did what he did, how he suc­ceed­ed, and ulti­mate­ly, to have him acknowl­edge his lies. In this way, The Imposter is the sto­ry of both Mar­co and Cer­cas; Cer­cas mas­ter­ful­ly inter­weaves their sto­ries and the effects each had on the other.

Cer­cas is any­thing but dis­pas­sion­ate in unrav­el­ling Marco’s past, and along the way rais­es thought-pro­vok­ing, fre­quent­ly dis­turb­ing ques­tions: Is there such a thing as a good” lie? Do the inten­tions of the liar mat­ter? What is the dif­fer­ence between writ­ing fic­tion and fal­si­fy­ing one’s life? If fic­tion reveals truths, can lies do the same? What does Cercas’s own work as a nov­el­ist mean along­side Marco’s work as a con artist?

Cer­cas turns Marco’s sto­ry into a dra­mat­ic thriller — albeit one not pro­pelled by action, but by ques­tions, ideas, inves­ti­ga­tions and self-doubts — in order to com­plete the puz­zle of a man whose imag­i­na­tion trans­formed him into a pub­lic hero. To his great cred­it, Cer­cas does not por­tray Mar­co as a sym­pa­thet­ic fig­ure, tempt­ing though it may be at times.

Mar­co — who is not Jew­ish and is today near­ing one hun­dred — did not begin rein­vent­ing him­self with the Holo­caust, but with the Span­ish Civ­il War, claim­ing he had fought against Fran­co and was forcibly sent to Ger­many. Only much lat­er, in the late 90s, when Spain began to face its wartime past, did his tra­jec­to­ry as a self-described con­cen­tra­tion camp sur­vivor begin its steady ascent. This, as it turned out, is what led to his dra­mat­ic down­fall in 2005.

It was all a hoax, per­pet­u­at­ed by a shame­less char­la­tan, a peer­less trick­ster,” a con­sum­mate ego­tist with an unquench­able need for fame. At the same time, he was charis­mat­ic, charm­ing, and an elo­quent speak­er — a man who under­stood that big lies are com­prised of small truths.

Mar­co was not the first to fal­si­fy Holo­caust mem­o­ry. Jerzy Kosin­s­ki did the same with his 1965 book The Paint­ed Bird, pur­port­ed­ly about his wartime child­hood. The book became a clas­sic of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture, and was only revealed to be the com­plete fic­tion it was in 1994.

In 1996, the child­hood mem­o­ries of one Bin­jamin Wilkomirs­ki appeared in Eng­lish as Frag­ments: Mem­o­ries of a Wartime Child­hood. This time, not only were the mem­o­ries false, but so was the author — there was no Bin­jamin Wilkomirs­ki. Bruno Doessekker, who is not Jew­ish and lived in Switzer­land his entire life, took the name.

With The Imposter, Cer­cas shows how Mar­co fic­tion­al­ized his life and excelled at dup­ing every­one around him, until brought down by the truth.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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