SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Outlaws’ by Javier Cercas


On a summer day at the arcade, timid sixteen-year-old Ignacio Cañas encounters two charismatic rebels: El Zarco (“Blue Eyes”) and his gorgeous girl, Tere. Entranced, he crosses the border into their dangerous world, becoming their partner in crimes that quickly escalate.
Twenty-five years later, Tere materializes in Cañas’s office, needing help. Cañas has settled back into middle-class life, becoming a successful defense lawyer. Zarco has matured into a convict of some infamy. Yet somehow, with new stakes, this three-way affair will begin again.
With his usual brio, Javier Cercas surveys the borders between right and wrong, respectability and criminality, and to what extent we can pass between them—or determine on which side we ultimately fall. This brilliantly plotted tale firmly establishes him as one of the most rewarding novelists writing today.
Cover and blurb via Amazon

Cercas’ 2014 novel, Outlaws, (or Las Leyes de la Frontera – Laws of the Border) is a book where historical detail and fiction mix (and you know how much I enjoy that). The book tells the story of a boy, Ignacio Cañas, starting in the 1970’s, who comes of age in a dangerous way. The point of view is told through Ignacio, retelling the story in later life.

Ignacio meets El Zarco, a young criminal and his girlfriend, Tere. Ignacio is quickly on-his-knees in love with Tere, who toys with him to irritating (for Ignacio) levels. Franco is already dead but the repressive laws of the time haven’t yet been lifted. Ignacio is living an average middle-class life in Gerona, and works after school at an arcade, where the initial meetings take place. Zarco, a self-important thug, and his misfit girlfriend recruit Ignacio into their gang. It takes little more than a blowjob and the promise of mischief to draw Ignacio from his simple life with his family. Petty crime turns to more violent acts as Ignacio’s life with drugs, prostitutes and breaking the law spirals into a shambles. But when a bank robbery goes wrong, the gang is disbanded. The characters of the innocent Ignacio, and the wannabe hero/criminal Zarco are well told and believable, and Tere’s desperation is easy to imagine.

The book jumps forward 25 years and Ignacio is a successful lawyer. He had put his past behind him, much like Spain has done in the same time period. Thanks to Ignacio’s father and his Falangist friend, Ignacio came away unscathed from a bank robbery, never charged, while Zarco and Tere shared a harder fate. Over two decades, Zarco has been the inspiration of four movies and has released his memoirs, and Ignacio fears Zarco believes him to have been an informant, such was his preferential treatment by the police in the 1970’s.

Ignacio decides to become Zarco’s lawyer, and tries to get him released from prison with a PR campaign. Zarco has a drug problem, and serious health complications, but a combination of Zarco’s bravado in the media and a carefully new public face created, what the public hear and the real Zarco become more separated than ever before. As the book continues, more secrets about the characters unravel to give a big picture about how people changed while the nation  reinvented itself.

Zarco is inspired by real-life criminal Juan José Moreno Cuenca, ‘El Vaquilla’, who became a celebrity before dying in 2003. The storyline of the lives of the mid-1970’s is told well and the story has a great pace and relaxed style, showing how Spain grew up alongside the characters.

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