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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Javier Cercas

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To purchase Outlaws

Title: Outlaws
Author: Javier Cercas
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 367 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Outlaws - US
Las leyes de la frontera - US
Outlaws - UK
Outlaws - Canada
Outlaws - India
Les lois de la frontière - France
Outlaws - Deutschland
Le leggi della frontiera - Italia
Las leyes de la frontera - España
  • Spanish title: Las leyes de la frontera
  • Translated by Anne McLean

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Our Assessment:

B : reasonably well-done portrait of types and times

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 15/8/2014 Ángel Gurría-Quintana
The Guardian . 21/6/2014 Patrick Flanery
The Independent . 29/5/2014 Max Liu
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/1/2015 Alison McCulloch
The Telegraph . 27/5/2014 Anthony Cummins
Wall St. Journal . 12/9/2014 Jeremy Treglown

  From the Reviews:
  • "There are no neat conclusions in this thought-provoking novel by one of Spainís most compelling writers. (...) In typical Cercas style, the key questions remain unanswered but the twisting journey towards a solution offers tantalising glimpses into the human heart." - Ángel Gurría-Quintana, Financial Times

  • "Cercas's accounts of adolescent obsessions and disaffections are among the most absorbing and affecting passages in the novel. (...) Though the novel moves towards a suite of surprising and unsettling revelations about the characters, the real strengths of the book are in Cercas's unadorned prose, once again deftly translated by Anne McLean, and in his ear for the rhythms of everyday speech." - Patrick Flanery, The Guardian

  • "Anne McLean's brisk translation sweeps the reader into Canas's world but Cercas's long, multi-clause sentences occasionally become tangled. (...) Outlaws is about the ways individuals and societies perceive themselves, the stories which sustain and imprison them, and the challenges of freedom and subjectivity." - Max Liu, The Independent

  • "(I)tís the overarching mystery of identity that ultimately sets this novel apart." - Alison McCulloch, The New York Times

  • "Imagine Pulpís Common People arranged by Ennio Morricone and youíre somewhere near its heady mood." - Anthony Cummins, The Telegraph

  • "(A) crime thriller with a social conscience. (...) A way of describing his work is to say that its analytic-seeming recoveries of history are a means not of avoiding autobiography but of disguising -- even sublimating -- it. (...) Outlaws is intelligently constructed and treats some pressing questions, but for a vivid, psychologically and socially penetrating novel about a boy growing up -- albeit at an earlier point -- in the criminalizing shadow of Francoism, a reader might prefer Juan Marsé's Lizard Tails." - Jeremy Treglown, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Outlaws is basically a two-part novel -- there is also an Epilogue, but the bulk of the book is divided between accounts of events from the late 1970s and then from about a quarter of a century later. An author is writing a book, and he presents his conversations with several of those he's writing about here; Outlaws is, nominally, a book-in-dialogue, but the author tends to retreat in these exchanges, asking his questions and occasionally commenting, but basically allowing those he is speaking to to tell their stories. His conversation-partner changes from chapter to chapter, but returns frequently to Ignacio Cañas, the main source and ultimately the main figure in the novel. This petty-bourgeois boy came into the orbit of a gang from the wrong side of the tracks in 1978; led by Zarco, this group of hoodlums were already small-time criminals, but when 'Gafitas' -- so Zarco's nickname for Cañas -- joined they began to get more ambitious. It didn't last -- barely a summer -- though while Cañas got his act together and went on to become a defense lawyer, Zarco became a legendary (and often incarcerated) criminal. (The book is apparently based on the real-life figure known as 'El Vaquilla'.)
       In 1978 Cañas and Zarco are both sixteen. It is post-Francoist Spain, but:

the country was still governed by Franco's laws and still smelled exactly the same as it did under Franco: like shit.
       Bullied at school, Cañas finds himself drawn into the orbit of Zarco, who thinks the kid might come in handy -- "Someone who speaks Catalan and looks like a good kid". While impressed by the strong leadership-personality of Zarco, it's Tere -- possibly Zarco's girlfriend (Cañas never seems quite able to figure that out) -- who has the strongest hold on him. Gafitas becomes your typical little rebel, suddenly staying out until all hours, hanging out with his new buddies -- and joining in their escalating crime-spree.
       In provincial Gerona the police kept the darker goings-on under reasonable control, in one quarter. Zarco's ambitions threatened to upset that careful order, and so they were particularly eager to get him. One of the characters who recounts events from those times is the inspector who ultimately brought Zarco down -- and who let Cañas off.
       Cañas' break from the gang is quick and abrupt -- while the others are dead, maimed, or incarcerated, the only other one who remains free after everything collapses is Tere, and he decides to make a clean break from her as well. Then, some two decades later, these figures come back into his life, the notorious Zarco -- a legend in his own time, built up over decades as a criminal and prisoner -- hoping Gafitas can help him with the legal mess he finds himself in. A very successful lawyer, Cañas nevertheless found himself at that point: "overcome by a sense of futility", and Zarco seems to be an opportunity (again) to get out of his rut.
       Cañas sees rehabilitating Zarco's image as the way to get his client free:
we had to revive Zarco's media profile; and to revive it we had to mount a press campaign that would bring back his lost prestige and convince public opinion that he deserved a pardon and his freedom.
       Typically: image counts for more than the underlying reality. (Amusingly, at least, this particular plan is undermined by another person who elbows her way to the front.)
       Outlaws examines changing times -- the post-Franco transition in Spain -- and the difficulties of changing with them, as well as the often seemingly random opportunities life offers. Cañas' fate as a youth was decided by several chances, beginning with who tipped off the police about the crime that went so dreadfully wrong (with Cañas remaining uncertain -- and sometimes even worrying that it was his fault) and then the inspector's decision not to arrest the boy (for which several explanations also surface).
       Cercas unfolds the personal portraits here well, even as much remains a mystery about the central figures. Larger-than-life (and then largely broken) Zarco remains the most elusive, not quite living up to his image (afraid, by the end, of actually obtaining his freedom and having to survive outside the environment he's made his own -- prison), but gaps remain regarding Cañas and Tere too.
       The writer-figure in Outlaws at one point explains:
That was the idea at first, yes: to write a book about Zarco that denounced all the lies that have been told about him and tell the truth or a portion of the truth. But a person doesn't write the books he wants to write, but those he can or those he finds, and the book I've found both is and isn't that one.
       Outlaws suffers some from this getting-out-of-(the-author's-)hands, uncertain of who to focus on in its portrayals as Cañas is the far more dominant figure (even as he is the less interesting personality).
       Cercas provides a great deal of detail, but often it feels to little end; it makes for some atmosphere, but doesn't lead anywhere -- a spinning of wheels that lessens the impact of what he seems to be after. Intriguing in some of its characters and episodes and commentary-on-the-times, Outlaws ultimately feels too insubstantial.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 December 2014

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Outlaws: Reviews: Other books by Javier Cercas under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Javier Cercas was born in 1962.

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© 2014-2016 the complete review

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