What Lies Do to a Life

I once knew a man whose remarkable lying caused me to overlook him. When we met, I was nineteen and world-weary, and he fit a mold I thought I knew: rich (he’d attended Harrow, a particularly expensive private school), clever (then Oxford, early), seemingly conservative (a link to the army). A few years later, I crossed paths with him again when I was thinking of moving into a cheap room in a house in London occupied by a woman he was dating. The room was in the eaves, and I took it, even though it didn’t have a door—just a permanently open trap with a ladder leading in.

At that time, the man worked for the civil service. He was writing a satire about it, he said. He would come to our house with a big army bag slung over his shoulders, and through the square hole in my floor I’d hear him talking about the Grenadier Guards, Afghanistan, P.T.S.D. I paid him little attention, but I knew that class was a constant source of stress in his relationship with my housemate, whom I’ll call Sophie. He had a string of names and well-known relations; he introduced himself as the son of a lord. She was middle class. Sometimes, the liar would go to extravagant parties and not invite her, and she would feel insufficiently impressive.

When Sophie, who had become dissatisfied with her job, applied for a position with the intelligence services, he encouraged her. But then she told him that she’d listed his name on a questionnaire—the sort designed to reveal anything in her private life that might compromise her, Queen, or country—and he said that there was no need to mention him. Days later, he broke things off. Sophie was shocked and upset, and grew more so when, shortly after that, she received a text message from the interviewer to whom she had spoken, meant for someone else. “It’s all a tissue of lies,” it read. “No Grenadier Guards. No Harrow. Nothing.”

The phrase “tissue of lies,” like “web” and “fabrication,” evokes the warp and weft of a narrative woven largely from threads of untruth—its sometimes animal vitality. Since then, I’ve thought often about how to retell the story of the liar. Relating it to friends as an anecdote was to submit to its surreal quality. It didn’t feel entirely right when I told it that way, given the license for exaggeration that the anecdote form allows. Doing so seemed to enact a kind of indulgent dynamic that I associate with ghost tours and urban myths of baby alligators living in sewers, or viral videos of shrouded figures walking across doorways. When I began to write fiction, I considered using the story but felt that it was unsuitable—both implausible and, somehow, too obvious. The parts that were most shocking in real life—the secret services, the texted tricolon, the degree to which he inflated his imaginary aristocratic heritage—would read as clichéd plot devices. But, over the years, the story kept hopping into my mind. When I encountered lies in my own life or in the news—reading about British undercover officers infiltrating the climate movement, for example, using the identities of dead babies and fathering children with activists—I would find the story of Sophie’s liar sitting there underneath, a toad under a pile of leaves.

Perhaps the reason that the liar has stayed with me has something to do with his simultaneous brazenness and banality—though the revelation was shocking, he himself had registered so little with me, and the fact of being lied to seemed, in the end, almost pedestrian. Lies are ubiquitous; in a certain light, to be shocked by them seems precious.

Such is the posture assumed by the Spanish novelist Juan Jacinto Muñoz-Rengel in “A History of Lying,” a book-length essay in which he declares that “the history of humankind is nothing other than the history of making it up.” Best known for a parodic crime novel titled “The Hypochondriac Hitman” and other postmodern experiments with literary convention, Muñoz-Rengel sets out from a brief summary of Cartesian doubt (which, he says, none of the philosophical solutions that have been proposed properly resolve) to argue that lying is not, as conventional morality might have us assume, a practice to be avoided whenever possible but, rather, an innate and inevitable element of language and life.

Muñoz-Rengel marshals a wide range of examples to this end, beginning with that of the Cretan seer Epimenides, who rose from a deep sleep in the sixth century B.C. to declare that “all Cretans are liars,” and stretching to the present day, when Spotify’s sharing function allows people to “stop listening to the things they want to and begin prioritising instead the image of themselves.” Skimming the surface of philosophy (Nietzsche, Freud, Ferdinand de Saussure, and post-structuralists are all praised for their skepticism), Muñoz-Rengel also attempts to give his polemic a scientific varnish by referring to the natural world. The book is laced with nuggets of evolutionary biology and examples of animals with the ability to disguise themselves. Consider the cuttlefish, he writes, for whom deception is a biological strategy. It can not only change color but is also “capable of modifying its texture, the entirety of its external structure, and even of generating patterns similar to the shifting seabed, which it can then set in motion along its body in the opposite direction to that in which it is actually moving.”

The example does much to illustrate the breadth of Muñoz-Rengel’s definition of a lie, as well as his subsequent tendency to blur concrete details, as well as historical fact, in service of his theory. So broad is his lens that people captured and enslaved by the Phoenicians are described as “overly trusting foreigners—the more credulous kind, who probably hung around the bait, rather than withdrawing somewhere safe.” Even his less extreme conflations are absurd. “Having dealings with other people means staying in a constant state of dissimulation,” he writes—in other words, you lie whenever you are polite. Gone are the important distinctions—based on their scale and severity, their effects and their motivations—between individual lies. And who would hold a single cuttlefish to be an example of deceitful behavior, when its aptitude for concealment is helpful to its survival?

Some of the most exaggerated portions of Muñoz-Rengel’s book are those in which he claims that, because language uses signs to represent real things, it, too, is a sort of deception, and that all understandings reached through metaphors are therefore “based on speculation, projection, lies.” This, again, seems to elide crucial nuances. While metaphors can sometimes be misleading, they can also illuminate the speaker’s personal response to a subject. In neither case do they impart knowledge that is empirically falsifiable, as lies do. When I compared the story of the liar to a toad buried in leaf litter, I was not claiming that the story had literally been hibernating for the winter—grayish, warty—then sprung out when it was unexpectedly disturbed, an unwelcome, grotesque, vaguely comic creature. I was trying to convey something of the particular way the story had lodged itself in my mind and, even when I forgot about it, seemed to be leading a life of its own.

Sometimes, among all Muñoz-Rengel’s vague tracings of unreality, I detect something sincere. His fierce allegiance to the idea that the origins of lying reside in any detachment from reality brings to mind the idea of not lying as an active pursuit, which takes the form of a constant sifting through the details of life, and a simultaneous attempt to articulate them as clearly as possible—something akin to producing art. But when he writes off representation with such little regard for the distinction between it and intentional lying, it comes—gradually, frustratingly—to seem as if he is not so much making a case about the inevitability of epistemological carelessness as providing a demonstration of it.

I can’t pretend his lying hasn’t made the liar I knew more interesting, but more interesting still was how, around him, the world behaved in unlikely ways. Like Boris Johnson—who was described by one former Tory M.P., himself often denying having been in the intelligence services, as “the best liar we’ve ever had”—the liar told stories that were superficially entertaining but predictable, and used them to garner power.

The propulsive force of people who know how to gain trust by knitting improbable tales is Muñoz-Rengel’s most generative subject. He recounts the story of the Catalan man Joan Pujol, who, in 1941, approached the British authorities to offer his services as a spy. By his own account, Pujol—whose family suffered during the Spanish Civil War, and who consequently hated Fascism and Communism both—came to spying in a roundabout way:

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