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  • "Cómo Ocultar la Verdad Sin Mentir"1:Cercas's El Impostor and the Doctrine of Equivocation
  • Hilaire Kallendorf

Javier Cercas's 2014 non-fiction novel El impostor, regarding the massive fraud of alleged Spanish Holocaust survivor Enric Marco – who, it turns out, was a voluntary guest worker in Germany, not a leftist persecuted for his political leanings, as he claimed – raises important philosophical questions about the nature of truth and its vulnerability to manipulation by a cynical charlatan. This case of imposture, widely publicized in Spain, has become a national litmus test for gullibility and an occasion for soul-searching as Spaniards ask why they were taken in by him – essentially, why they wanted to believe his fabricated stories of life in a German concentration camp were true. The purpose of this essay is, first, to explore the novel's own comments about truth and lies (which, as we shall see, are explicitly posed within the context of Spanish Catholic penitential discourse) before turning to a curious text from the Renaissance titled A Treatise of Equivocation. If his case were slightly different, this text might have provided the Protean Enric Marco with his best shot at a defense of his actions within the realm of moral philosophy. As it stands, el caso Marco still opens up for our analysis significant issues of secrecy, sovereignty and absolutism as discussed by political philosopher Alberto Moreiras and French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. The essay will conclude with an assessment of whether, according to internal criteria laid out for the Renaissance doctrine of equivocation, Marco's actions would have been justifiable to early modern casuists or not.


Some of the most appealing features of Javier Cercas's El impostor are the novel's multiple layers of metadiscourse. The narrative voice frequently compares himself to Enric Marco and thereby develops a capacity for empathy with this so-called [End Page 109] moral monster. He also engages in periodic detours or tangents away from the main thread of the story line where he meditates upon questions such as "¿es moralmente lícito mentir?" (Cercas 184). In response to this question, he offers an erudite survey of thinkers ranging from Plato, to Voltaire, to Kant, to Montaigne, a group which he divides into two categories: relativists and absolutists (Cercas 184). He quickly arrives at the rather startling conclusion that most of the thinkers out there are relativists when it comes to lying. In The Republic Plato spoke of the noble lie (Cercas 184), while Voltaire concluded that lying is a vice only when its effects are evil (Cercas 184). As the novelist summarizes the spectrum of these "relativistic" positions,

Razonan que la mentira no siempre es mala y a veces es necesaria, o que la bondad o la maldad de una mentira dependen de la bondad o la maldad de las consecuencias que provoca: si el resultado de la mentira es bueno, la mentira es buena; si el resultado es malo, la mentira es mala.

(Cercas 184)

In contrast, he argues, the absolutists see a lie as evil and culpable in and of itself, regardless of its potentially beneficial effects:

Por el contrario, los absolutistas argumentan que la mentira es en sí misma mala, con independencia de sus resultados, porque constituye una falta de respeto al otro, y, en el fondo, una forma de violencia, o un crimen.

(Cercas 184)

He ultimately concludes that the only true absolutist in the realm of truth-telling was Immanuel Kant, who claimed that the prohibition against lying admits of no exceptions (Cercas 185). He notes that in this area of his dogmatism, Kant had few followers.

Javier Cercas – or, more accurately, the narrative voice in his non-fiction novel – goes on to apply these tidbits from the history of moral philosophy to the specific case of Enric Marco. Latching onto Plato's concept of the noble lie, he applies it to Marco's imposture, playing devil's advocate just long enough to explore what his self-defense might look like against the charges brought against him of massive fraud and imposture:

Los defensores de Marco … sostienen que las mentiras de Marco eran mentiras nobles, por decirlo como Plat...


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