Outlaws – Javier Cercas

This book was sent to me by Bloomsbury India in exchange of an honest review

Outlaws is the story of three people who come together through the vagaries of fate, get separated and years later come together once again. It is a story of forgotten friendships or mis-remembered ones and the desire of all of us to go back to the time that was most adventurous in our lives.

This is the story of Ignacio Canas (aka Gravitas), Zarco and Tere. The first part of the book deal with the summer when Gravitas turns sixteen he finds himself being bullied by classmates who until a few weeks ago had been his friends. As the bullying gets more and more vicious, Gravitas gets alienated from the group and begins his summer holidays with a fervent wish to stay as far away as possible from his erstwhile friends. This cruelty of adolescence towards anyone who is perceived as weak and alone is a universal truth. Ignacio’s hurt and bewilderment at the sudden turn that childhood friendships take is portrayed in a wonderfully subtle and understated way. This is when he meets Zarco and, more importantly, Tere who are both from the ‘wrong side’ of the tracks or in this case a river. Everyone’s moral decision-making capabilities take a swan dive when they are feeling emotionally battered and alone. Add to that the fact that poor Ignacio was also a teenager at the time and it is no surprise that the path he chooses is the one of least resistance. They introduce Gravitas to a world that he had never seen before, filled with prostitutes, drug peddlers and thieves. Suddenly, Gravitas is part of that world and enjoying his new friendships and his new self immensely. The summer ends as such things inevitably do – in disaster and hurt.

The story is told as a series of interview transcripts that a journalist, who is writing a book on Zarco, is conducting alternately with Ignacio and a police officer who happened to know both Zarco’s gang and Ignacio in both their incarnations – as juvenile offenders and later as adults.

 The second part of the story deals with the reunion of Gravitas, Zarco and Tere as adults. Gravitas is now a famous lawyer, Zarco is a celebrity prisoner in jail and Tere is still trying to get her life together. It was fascinating to watch Gravitas being once again pulled towards these two people by the power of the charm that Zarco exudes and the unfulfilled adolescent infatuation that Gravitas had for Tere. Contrary to all evidence that suggests otherwise, Gravitas continues to idolize Zarco and pine for Tere, all the time believing them to be better than they actually are.

The author has presented the story as a succinct and understated narration, while leaving most of the emotional deductions to the reader’s discretion. The question-answer format of the narration also lends a unique editorial quality to the story and was much to my liking. Gravitas as a child seemed simple and naive. As an adult he seems much the same. It is impossible not to empathize with this sad, little man trying to make things right for his teenage hero and for the star of his adolescent fantasies. Life can be subtly cruel, camouflaging heartache and disappointment as second chances.

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