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Javier Cercas: Anatomía de un instante (The Anatomy of a Moment)

This is certainly not a novel in the conventional sense, in that it does not tell a fictitious story but, as we have seen elsewhere in the 20th and 21st century, the definition of the novel is changing. Cercas himself calls it a novel (on several occasions) so a novel it is. It tells the story of the failed coup in Spain of 23 February 1981. Just before 6.30 p. m.in the evening, the Spanish Parliament was in the process of electing Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo prime minister to replace Adolfo Suárez. At that point, a group of around 200 armed men, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero, stormed into the building, ordering the deputies first to sit down and then to drop to the floor, firing several rounds of ammunition in the air to frighten them. All the deputies obeyed the order, except for three: General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado ordered Tejero to desist, Communist leader Santiago Carrillo, remained seated and Suárez tried to restrain General Gutiérrez Mellado but then returned to his seat and remained seated. This is, for Cercas, an iconic moment. He cites a survey carried out in the UK, where 25% of the respondents thought Winston Churchill was a fictitious person. He says that Gutiérrez Mellado, Carrillo and, in particular, Suárez have attained this status, though I think he means that they have attained more of a mythic rather than fictitious status. Initially, he planned to write his book around Suárez’ action, which he saw as the key to the coup and its failure but changed his mind, seeing the whole coup as more complex and fragmented than just Suárez’ action.

It is a long book and Cercas tells us a lot about what happened. After his initial speculations, he discusses why Suárez had so much opposition. Cercas is not a big supporter of the man. Suárez had been a Francoist. He had been named first post-Franco prime minister and had tried to run a government for the past five years. He had been opposed by various groups – Cercas examines them all – including the press, which was still very much Francoist, the financial and business sector, the military, probably the intelligence service, the Francoists, the church, the opposition party (i.e. Felipe González‘ socialists) and, in particular, his own party. His own party was not really a party but a motley assortment of various groups of differing political views. Moreover, the world was not going the way he was going. He was moving towards the left but the rest of the world – e.g. with the elections of Thatcher and Reagan – was moving to the right. Cercas goes on to describe the coup in some detail. It was not just the attack on the Parliament, but also a movement by groups from the armed forces to seize control in Valencia and Madrid. He describes in some details the careers and possible thoughts of Gutiérrez Mellado, Carrillo and Suárez. Gutiérrez Mellado, for example, may well have been thinking about how he had been there himself, when he saw the rebels come into the Parliament, for he had been a rebel forty-five years earlier, when he had supported Franco against the legitimate Republican government (though Cercas speculates that Gutiérrez Mellado would have seen the two actions as very different). All three must have been concerned about their fate, as they were probably the three men most hated by the right and the military.

Cercas goes on to tell us what happened next, in particular the role of the King, who was key to the failure of the coup. But he also describes in great detail the various events in the coup, in particular the falling-out between the various chief conspirators. We also get detailed biographies of the main players in the conspiracy. Finally, we get the post-coup story – how it ended, what happened afterwards and the repercussions. Only the senior conspirators were punished. Many of the lower ranks, including junior officers, got off scot free and went on to have successful military careers, to the obvious chagrin of Cercas. Interestingly enough, the careers of the three heroes – Gutiérrez Mellado, Carrillo and Suárez – took a downward turn following the coup and Cercas explains the whys and wherefores.

Even if you know nothing and care nothing about Spanish politics, this is a book that is well worth reading. Of course, it is not a novel in the strict sense, but it describes a major historical event, perhaps the most important in Spain since the Civil War, with the possible exception of the death of Franco. In this book the event is told not by a historian, with a historian’s sensibilities and rigour but by a novelist who can and does speculate endlessly on who said what, what their motives were and what would have happened if things had turned out differently. It is this that makes it a particularly good read as Cercas allows himself to inject his point of view and his ideas of where things might have gone and how they arrived at where they did.

Publishing history

First published in 2009 by Mondadori
First English translation in 2011 by Bloomsbury
Translated by Anne McLean