Autofiction Without the Auto: On Javier Cercas’ Outward-Looking, Self-Centered Fiction
Bécquer Seguín Considers the Emergence of a New Type of Literature in Post-Franco Spain
Featured image: L.M. Palomares
By the time Javier Cercas left Spain in the summer of 1987 for a teaching gig at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, he still wasn’t sure what kind of writer he wanted to be. The generic eclecticism of his soon-to-be published first book, the short story collection The Motive, now looked to him more like literary indecisiveness. What path should he take next: push the limits of genre fiction, as he did with noir in one of the stories, or stick instead to a more traditional mode, as he did with the epistolary in another of the stories? Or should he follow the path set out by the final story of the collection and see what more he could do with a new kind of self-reflexive writing that, at that time, was all the rage in Spain?
The new kind of writing is what we now call “metafiction.” By the 1980s, it had blanketed all corners of the global literary world. From Borges to Calvino, Lessing to Kundera, established and emerging writers found ever new ways of foregrounding the artifice of fiction. In Spain, writers of the stature of Juan Goytisolo, Carmen Martín Gaite, and Juan Marsé had published major works underscoring this artificiality, often featuring scenes in which readers witness the writing of the very book they are reading.Ambivalences, contradictions, and other wrinkles in the historical record were what motivated his autofiction.
Cercas decided to go down that last path. Metafiction, after all, was the genre of his early idols in American literature: Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, John Barth. Already in the short story collection, Cercas had adopted and challenged Barth’s concepts of “antinovel” and the “literature of exhaustion.” Perhaps seeing this particular form of postmodernism in its native habitat could help him make metafiction his own as well as make sense of the country where he would spend the next couple of years.
In 1989, upon returning to Spain, Cercas published his second book, The Tenant, a campus novel set at the University of Texas, Austin. The novel, which tells the story of a professor who gradually becomes academically, socially, and romantically overshadowed by a new colleague, followed the metafictional script to a T: the novel opens and closes with the exact same lines, making the story, the dream, and the self-reflective literary device come, literally, full circle. Cercas’s programmatic embrace of metafiction, however, was a literary failure. As he later admitted to the journalist Lorena Maldonado, “I wanted to be a postmodern writer, if possible, a postmodern North American writer. But then I went to live in the U.S. and discovered something, which was that I was Spanish.”
In 2001, everything changed. Cercas exploded onto the literary scene with his novel Soldiers of Salamis, which sold more than a million copies worldwide, won numerous awards, and was quickly turned into a major film. The novel, which tells the story of how a journalist named Javier Cercas finds an anonymous Republican soldier who spared the life of the fascist ideologue during the Spanish Civil War, swapped the university campus for the reporting trip. But the metafiction was still there, this time in modified form. It no longer involved Escheresque circularity but rather something much more directly self-referential. Cercas had inserted himself—name, image, and likeness—directly into the novel.
Today, we’re used to this kind of writing. It’s called autofiction, and it can be found everywhere in contemporary fiction. In fact, it is to thank for some of the biggest names in literature today: Karl Ove Knausgaard, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, Maggie Nelson. The list of practitioners is long. Autofiction describes fictional writing in which the author, narrator, and protagonist share a name, many biographical details, or, most often, both. It is frequently seen as the fictional corollary to memoir, and thus as a genre of “life writing” that prioritizes introspection.
This can come in different flavors: some prefer Knausgaardian novella-length digressions that give rhythm to the mundane chores of daily life, others favor the vibes of the Nelsonian graduate school theory classroom, replete with sex, gender, and philosophy. But no matter what the approach, they all lead in the direction of the self.
Not so for Cercas. His autofictional novels deal with a different kind of intimacy: the intimacy of how to report a newspaper opinion column. Against the popular stereotype of the armchair op-ed writer, opinion journalism, like its newsroom corollary, relies a great deal on facts and, often, on first-hand reporting. Opinion writers might report on the history of feminism or the history of their own family. But the best report all the same. What marks the difference between what they write and what those in a newsroom write has a lot to do with self-reflection, that is, the extent to which opinion journalists avow the persuasive techniques they use in their own writing. Op-ed writing, after all, doesn’t just identify a problem, it proposes a solution.
Over the next two decades, Cercas would use autofiction to explore the craft of opinion journalism. In novels from Soldiers of Salamis to The Anatomy of a Moment (2009), The Impostor (2014), and Lord of All the Dead (2017), readers encounter a shadow narrative of the journalistic process, which finds Cercas, the protagonist, investigating major historical events and figures, from the Spanish Civil War and the country’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s and ’80s to the lives of fascist writers, famous politicians, and notorious fabulists. Readers follow Cercas as he conducts interviews, uncovers documents, reviews footage, visits sites, and works with various kinds of sources. The findings often appear in the novels themselves, sometimes in the form of excerpts, whole articles reproduced verbatim, or even book-length investigations.
Cercas’s autofiction diagnosed a number of problems across contemporary Spanish society. But one stood out among the rest: the problem how to understand someone’s political ideology when it doesn’t align with their personality. In Soldiers of Salamis, the worldview of Cercas, the protagonist, gets scrambled when he researches the story of the fascist ideologue Rafael Sánchez Mazas, who, it turns out, was far more interested in writing literature than propaganda.
In The Anatomy of a Moment, which tells the story of how three of Spain’s most important politicians dealt with an attempted coup d’état on February 23, 1981, ideological commitments go out the window once the health of Spanish citizens and Spanish democracy is put on the line. Similar moments occur in The Impostor, which profiles a left-wing figure who is revealed to have fabricated his internment in a Nazi concentration camp, as well as in Lord of All the Dead, where Cercas, the protagonist, uncovers the fascist history of his relative before throwing into doubt the extent to which words on paper entail enthusiasm in person.
If the problem was how to understand the disconnect between political ideology and personal identity, these novels, like many opinion columns, also proposed a solution. The solution, for Cercas, was that ideological commitments didn’t actually exist and, thus, neither did the disconnect between one’s political ideology and personal identity. Whatever apparent tension might exist could be explained away by assuming that people are never as deeply committed to political ideas as one might think. Sánchez Mazas was merely a “false Falangist.” As for the three politicians: “Only irreconcilable enemies could reconcile the irreconcilable Spain of Franco.” And “the ultimate enigma of [Enric] Marco,” the fabulist, “is his absolute normality; also his absolute exceptionality.” As it turns out, people who apparently have strong political commitments don’t, deep down, actually have any. Politics in the end is always downstream of personality.Despite their authoritative voice in the eyes of readers, writers of autofiction can hide behind the fact that what they’ve written is fiction.
These were bold arguments about major political figures. Why would Cercas want to couch them in autofiction, or in fiction at all? Part of the answer has to do with the medium. Autofiction is a genre that, by definition, blurs the fiction-nonfiction divide. As such, if used correctly, it can have its cake and eat it too. Autofictional writers who write about contemporary politics can make claims on current events in a way that, say, a romance novelist cannot. This is because the blurring of fiction and nonfiction often persuades readers into giving their writing a certain nonfictional legitimacy that would not be afforded to writers whose work is squarely in the fictional realm.
More generally, fiction has a shelf-life that often exceeds that of nonfiction, especially the argumentative, short-form kind, such as an op-ed. This means that it can also reach a much wider and more diverse audience, potentially persuading far more people than a self-selecting newspaper or magazine could. Lastly, autofiction is fiction, after all. Despite their authoritative voice in the eyes of readers, writers of autofiction can hide behind the fact that what they’ve written is fiction. As the famous Hollywood disclaimer reads, “This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.” In this way, bold arguments such as Cercas’s never need to face the music.
The other part of the answer has to do with Cercas’s stature as a novelist intellectual, that is, as a novelist who opines in the public sphere through both fiction and nonfiction writing. In Cercas’s case, that nonfiction writing has taken the form of an op-ed column, which he began writing in 1998 for El País, Spain’s paper of record, and has continued to this day. The figure of the novelist intellectual presents a dilemma: how do we deal with a writer whose work appears to simultaneously occupy the realms of fiction and nonfiction? Novelist intellectuals upset the typical understanding of the public sphere, which purports to be a nonfictional arena in which claims and arguments can be evaluated according to intellectual standards that most often hew to norms in journalism and the academy.
These standards, however, might neuter the unique contribution novelist intellectuals bring to public debate, namely, their access to certain forms of truth and thought through fiction that remain inaccessible to nonfiction. With Cercas, the dilemma is double: not only does he mix fiction and nonfiction in his persona as a novelist intellectual, but his chosen genre of fiction—autofiction—has a particular knack for blurring the fiction-nonfiction divide.
For nearly twenty years, Cercas took advantage of these dilemmas, developing his signature form of autofiction without the self. Ambivalences, contradictions, and other wrinkles in the historical record were what motivated his autofiction, licensing his reinvestigation of them in fictional form. The upshot was massive. Since the publication of Soldados de Salamina in 2001, Cercas has become one of the most well-known columnists in Spain, opining on all matters of Spanish history and politics. He has also become one of the figures of Spanish literature and most well-known Spanish intellectuals outside of Spain, making his name through profiles, op-eds, and interviews at places such as the New York Times, the New Yorker, and elsewhere.
Yet Cercas has never let go of journalistic and historical authority in his fiction. In fact, he has often doubled down on it with the publication of each new novel. The author of autofiction that attempts to intervene in the public debates of our time, Cercas has never been satisfied with writing the kind of fiction that claims to be cordoned off from the world it examines.
Adapted from The Op-Ed Novel: A Literary History of Post-Franco Spain by Bécquer Seguín. Copyright © 2024. Available from Harvard University Press.