Javier Cercas’s new novel is set in 1978 in the Catalan city of Gerona during the febrile period between Franco’s death and the establishment of full democracy in Spain. I caught the tail end of that time as a student in Madrid in the mid-1980s and experienced the raw energy of a society waking up after decades of dictatorship. Cannabis had been legalised, junkies and transvestite prostitutes were a common sight and everyone seemed to be dabbling in the black market. My neighbour had four different passports hidden under the rug in his sitting room. I thought Spain would always be like that, but Madrileño friends tell me things changed in the 1990s and that life there is now both more strait-laced and more straitened.
In Cercas’s post-Franco Gerona a middle-class sixteen-year-old gets swept into a gang after a bully in his class humiliates him and turns him off school. Ignacio Cañas is useful to the gang because he ‘speaks Catalan and looks like a good kid’; their families are migrants from poorer parts of