There are the lies we tell others, and the lies we tell ourselves. When the two don’t coincide—when a liar lies to himself, or is somehow shielded from recognizing himself as a liar—something strange happens, something tending toward pathology, or narcissism, or egotism, or other tragic states of being diagnosed by the ancient Greeks.

It’s no accident, then, that Icarus is a main metaphor in Javier Cercas’s insightful The Impostor: A True Story, a self-described “strange novel-without-fiction.” The eponymous leading role is a Catalonian named Enric Marco. He’s a real person, now nearing 100. Born to a mother in an insane asylum, and otherwise unremarkable in the first half of his life, Marco

for almost three decades, had passed himself off as a deportado—a deportee—to Hitler’s Germany and a survivor of the Nazi camps … he had been president of the Amical de Mauthausen, the principal Spanish association for survivors of Mauthausen, he had given hundreds of lectures and dozens of interviews, he had received a number of significant official distinctions, and had addressed the Spanish parliament on behalf of his supposed companions in misfortune, until it was discovered in early May 2005 that he had not been deported and had never been a prisoner in a Nazi death camp.

That is page 4, and those are the facts. What more is there to say? A lie is a lie is a lie. High dudgeon and moral outrage are one option in the holier-than-thou Twitterverse we now inhabit. But Cercas, and Marco, come to understand that the first stones are the hardest to cast. There are onion-skin layers to unpack to get to something real.

At the start, Cercas dispenses with Marco’s own voice by showing it to be a firehose of unreliability, “a torrent of shameless self-aggrandizement and absurd justifications.” Within a few chapters, having been given a taste of this if only to understand how maddening, tempting, and in need of mediation it is, we rarely hear directly from Marco again. He just can’t be trusted. Cercas then painstakingly prods and pokes at the constellation of myths that had held Marco’s lies and life together. An emphasis on truth betrays the liar. Most often, Marco has taken a thread of reality and laced, crocheted, or otherwise spun it out into a fanciful decorative piece that pleases his audience, who are in turn eager to be deceived. Yes, he lived through the Civil War, but no, he was not a heroic partisan. Yes he was in Germany where there was a concentration camp, but no, he wasn’t inside of it against his will. At other times, his audacity seems unparalleled: He leaves an entire family behind and starts a new one. With a minor stroke to one letter in a historical registry, he forges a paper trail for his identity as a deportado. He charms the pants off of a number of ladies. By all accounts, including his own, Marco is a character.

The problem is that Marco is so successful at passing off his sentimental kitsch—“the spontaneous style of the narcissist,” as Cercas writes—that he somewhat unwittingly becomes a charismatic voice for the experience of Spanish and European suffering in the war. No, he wasn’t a deportado, but he turns out to be a lot better at telling the story of the deportados than the real deportados, not just as if he were one of them, but somehow enhanced by his dedicated learning about their history, and his innate talent as a method actor. As Cercas notes, Marco’s rise coincided with a boom in so-called historical memory, which prized the memoir and the testimonial expression of personal experience over the digested scholarly analysis of history. (This was in part propelled by the realization that the survivors of the Holocaust were all dying of old age.) But a single soldier on a battlefield knows nothing about who won the war; a tree isn’t a forest.

I recently also wrote about a fabricator, or a possible one—a Hungarian Jew who waited tables at a brasserie in Paris after WWII and who may or may not have survived the war by infiltrating the SS—and spent several months, in the writing process, imagining his psyche. I can tell you it was a confounding place. The Holocaust threw off my sense of right and wrong. Once my man outlived the war, it seemed as though perhaps he should be entitled to whatever fantasies he concocted about his own experience.

But in the face of anti-Semitic denialism, any fabrication is like a cancer that eats at the tremendous body of collective scholarly (and political and cultural) work that has gone into documenting—and not just “memorializing”—the reality of humanity’s greatest crime. So it did matter that this Hungarian Jew might have lied about his deception of the SS. Except that he made his claims in a private autobiographical manuscript that only saw publication after his death.

Marco, on the other hand—“a superlative conman, a shameless charlatan, a peerless trickster and an exceptional storyteller”—brought forth his invention for public consumption and for his own egomaniacal glory, which means he preyed on the gullibility and the real-life stories of the real survivors, making a mockery of their experience as well as the retributive intentions of those who wished to honor them. When an honest historian, doing his job, uncovered the deceit, it was a great scandal across the Western world: “Spain’s Concentration Camp Hero Is Exposed as a Fraud,” crowed The Guardian. But was Enric a bad man?

Cercas is left to grapple with all the moral questions Enric ignores or suppresses or is constitutionally incapable of recognizing in himself. He does so on a plane that hovers just above Marco’s lived life: the plane of storytelling. This sends Cercas on tangents about unreliable narration, the inexhaustible documentation and narrativizing of the Holocaust, the frame tale in Quixote, the morality of Truman Capote’s use (or abuse) of his human subjects in writing In Cold Blood, the myth of Icarus, and back to his own work in the borderlands of narrative nonfiction and reality-based fiction. (The book that made Cercas’ reputation in the Spanish-speaking world and abroad, 2001’s Soldiers of Salamis, caused some stir, not to say scandal, for having employed a composite character who did not exist to deliver an essence of truth about the cruelties and lies of the Spanish Civil War.)

The themes here—memory, loss, honor, truth, betrayal, and righteousness—are all hypercharged elements of Spain’s apparent inability to confront its own divided past, and its shameful dictatorship. They also happen to be the basis of the academic and memorializing industry built around the Holocaust, whose monstrous existence defies rational logic, and yet was.

Though this may sound like postmodern cynicism, in Cercas’ hands (and Frank Wynne’s able translation for the 2016 U.K. edition), it isn’t. With generosity, empathy, and self-deprecation, Cercas draws fine lines: between history and “historical memory,” fabricators and novelists, sanity and insanity, heroism and cravenness. He wants to judge Marco, but fairly. He wants to condemn Marco, but he finds he can’t.

Throughout, Cercas is at great pains to document both his journalistic research and writing process. He states when conversations were filmed and when notes were taken. He describes the reliability of his own memories: Some he is certain of, others he declares to be more vague. Instead of just telling Marco’s story in the manner of a biographer who removes the reportorial “he said,” Cercas laces the chronology with “he says he,” repeating it lawyer-like, ad nauseam, to remind us we are reading Marco’s version of events, not an account of the events themselves. And he foregrounds his authorial ambivalence. The book begins, “I did not want to write this book,” but by the time the story has been told, Cercas has so appropriated Enric’s story that he now feels free to impose on the impostor himself.

Cercas even invents an “imaginary conversation with Marco,” who has come to obsess him to an almost troubling degree, “transcribing it as I imagined it, word for word.” The result is a set piece of aggressive psychoanalytic fantasy, in which Marco and Cercas (or maybe “Cercas,” a Spanish writer working on a book about an impostor) battle over who is more false and who more virtuous, in language that neither of them would ever use in real life. The lines within which these investigations take place were largely drawn by Cervantes, at the invention of the modern novel, which was propelled by the fantastical-beyond-belief—but largely true—tales emerging from the colonized Americas and reverberating in the European psyche, which you might say went insane. (See, for example, Shakespeare’s Tempest, first performed in 1611, as Cervantes was writing the second half of Quixote.) And Cercas is right to conclude that Marco rebelled against his insignificance, and tilted at windmills, just as Cercas tilts at the elusive windmills of the truth of Enric Marco’s life.

This set piece is followed some 30 pages later with a near-complete and parallel objectification, when Cercas, tearing down the wall he built as a bulwark against Marco’s unreliability, finally allows Marco to speak in his own voice, in transcript format, from a video recording of their fifth interview. An e-book might have asked us to push play on the uploaded video instead of reading stage-direction descriptions, and judge for ourselves. The scene, an unmasking, represents a kind of climax for Enric, in his reconciliation with the truth, and for Cercas, simultaneously, in his understanding of the limits of storytelling.

Americans will be tempted to read into The Impostor a commentary on the apotheosis of fabricators, swindlers, truth-benders, and image-manipulators in our political culture. This would be a mistake. It’s not that fiction hasn’t replaced reality here, or that narcissists aren’t ascendant, if not triumphant. (“Countries do everything in their power to avoid knowing or recognizing themselves for what they are,” he writes—about Europe.) Cercas gives us a universal investigation into the morals of storytelling and historical narrative, which is more about the creative legacy of the Golden Age of Spanish literature than the tawdry burlesque of the Golden Shower. And there is the fact, for whatever facts are worth these days, that Marco’s lies may, in some philosophical or ethical way, have been virtuous, as Voltaire thought possible, or noble (Plato), or beneficial (Montaigne), or salutary (Nietzsche). Our American lies seem unlikely to offer any similar compensations.

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