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If there is a key theme in the works of Spanish writer Javier Cercas it is that we are the product of the stories we tell ourselves. From his breakthrough novel, Soldiers of Salamis (2001), to his more recent reconstruction of the failed Spanish coup of 1981, The Anatomy of a Moment (2011), Cercas has shown a preoccupation with the ways in which narratives collide, leaving individuals to determine what truth there is in a given version of events.

This question hangs heavily over his latest novel, Outlaws, which through a cluster of unreliable narrators tells the tale of notorious juvenile delinquent Zarco and his gang of petty criminals. The main voice is that of Ignacio Cañas, a timid, bespectacled teenager in the Spanish town of Gerona, whose life is transformed during the summer of 1978 when Zarco and his girlfriend Tere walk into the games arcade where he is working.

“It was a strange time,” Cañas says to an unnamed writer piecing together the story. “Franco had died three years earlier, but the country was still governed by Franco’s laws and still smelled exactly the same as it did under Franco: like shit. I was 16 years old back then, and so was Zarco. We lived very near each other, and very far away from each other.”

The seemingly casual encounter leads to Cañas being recruited into Zarco’s fledgling gang – where he is given the nickname Gafitas, or Specs. He has been bullied at school and is unhappy at home, so the prospect of joining Zarco and his fellow thieves is appealing. Even more alluring to him is Tere, who despite being Zarco’s girlfriend – or is she? – flirts openly with Cañas.

Following Cañas’ first job, as lookout for the burglary of an empty summer home, the gang’s activities quickly escalate to car theft and armed robbery. The police are soon on to them. After a botched attempt to hold up a provincial bank, Zarco is finally caught. Cañas barely manages to escape and is left wondering whether he was inadvertently responsible for Zarco’s capture.

Thirty years later, Cañas has become a successful criminal defence lawyer. He has kept his dalliance with criminality well hidden until the day when Tere reappears. She asks him to defend Zarco, who has spent the past three decades doing the rounds of Spain’s penitentiary and justice system, and in the process has become the country’s most legendary delinquent.

Even Cañas himself is unsure why he agrees to take on Zarco’s case. Does he hope to increase his professional fame by securing the release of such a high-profile criminal? Is he hoping, as the prison warden suspects, to “redeem the great delinquent, the symbol of his generation”? Is it guilt – the nagging suspicion that he may have unwittingly facilitated Zarco’s downfall all those years ago? Or is it, perhaps, that he still has unfinished business with Tere?

Cañas is aware that, in engaging with the aged, drug-diminished Zarco, he may no longer be dealing with a person, but with “a persona”. Trying to get at the truth behind the façade becomes one of his – and the writer’s – main concerns.

Yet that truth proves elusive. “Everything’s been said about Zarco but it’s all lies,” says Cañas, who realises that even his own doubts about the story are “part of the truth”. He also acknowledges that if one “does not understand that there are things more important than the truth one doesn’t understand how important the truth is”.

Like Cañas, Cercas arrived in Gerona as a child, and knew first-hand the worlds of charnegos (poor immigrants) and quinquis (small-time delinquents) so richly evoked in the novel. While not autobiographical, Outlaws is certainly tinted by the author’s own experience.

There are no neat conclusions in this thought-provoking novel by one of Spain’s most compelling writers. As Cañas says to the hack: “you’re a writer, and must know that, even if we find it very comforting to find an explanation for what we do, the truth is that most of what we do doesn’t have a single explanation, supposing that it even has any.” In typical Cercas style, the key questions remain unanswered but the twisting journey towards a solution offers tantalising glimpses into the human heart.

Outlaws, by Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99/$26, 384 pages

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