Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas (trans. Anne McLean). Bloomsbury. 416pp, $18.00.
At 6PM on February 23rd, 1981, Lieutenant Coronel Tejero, accompanied by armed soldiers, entered Spain’s legislative assembly to overthrow the young democratic government. He failed. Instead, King Juan Carlos and President Aldolfo Suárez became heroes by defeating the coup and opening the path for Spain to become the modern democracy it is today. Or so goes the legend. For the Spanish writer Javier Cercas, who lived through the events of that night, it is dismaying to see them pass into legend, turning a complicated night full of intrigue and ambiguity into a triumphalist moment of Spanish history whose only legacy seems to be the annual televising of Tejero’s entrance into the Congress of Deputies. The 30 seconds of televised memory isn’t enough, what is needed is a thorough investigation, and Cercas’s answer is the genre-bending novel, The Anatomy of a Moment, which examines every facet of the night in detail—sometimes excruciating detail. The novelistic approach lets him question one of modern Spain’s founding myths, but also invites controversy; Anatomy was a sensation is Spain when it was published in 2009. Now English-language readers have a chance to see why.
Before discussing the book a brief history lesson is needed. In 1975, after almost 40 years of military dictatorship, Francisco Franco, the leader and architect of Fascist-Catholic Spain, died. His regime was marked by not only by political repression and a genetic hatred of communism but also a large military whose focus was more for rewarding party faithful than defending the country. Franco’s regime also injected the church into all aspects of society and politics. His successor, King Juan Carlos, swore to uphold the bloated regime, yet within six months of ascending to the throne he selected a young Francoist named Adolfo Suárez to become president, and, more importantly, gave him the mandate to make Spain a modern democracy. In short order Suárez used his political skills to hold elections, draft a new constitution, reshape the military, legalize divorce, and finally, legalize the Communist Party, the sworn enemies of the Franco regime ever since the 1936 Spanish Civil War. Needless to say, these changes upset many entrenched elites, making the transition period a turbulent time.
Cercas picks up the story roughly six months before the failed coup, detailing the dissatisfaction all political parties had with the Suárez’s government and the state of country. In 1980 Spain had seen an economic rescission brought on by the oil crisis, while ETA, the Basque terrorist group, had continued their intense campaign of assassinations and bombings and fissures in the governing coalition had appeared. Almost all political parties, Cercas notes, were thinking of a coup as a means to perform a “touch on the rudder ,” perhaps on the model of the 1980 coup in Turkey or de Gaulle’s in 1958. Ironically, even the left, which had little control over the military and whose continuing electoral successes made it impatient to take power, contemplated a non-electoral change. Suárez himself even proclaimed that the only way he would leave was if he was voted out or killed. This great sense of cynicism on all sides is criticized throughout the book.
Why did the Spain, after such a seemingly successful transition, suddenly find itself unable to continue? For Cercas, some of it can be explained by the inexperience of the new political class, but the greatest part of the blame falls squarely on Adolfo Suárez. He is the consummate politician, a “cardsharp,” whose only goal is to gain power, and his only skill is politics and stagecraft: “Suárez was always posing in public: that was his strength; he often posed in private: that was his weakness.” Those skills served him well when he convinced conservatives to accept his proposed changes. But he tried to stay in power too long, and as his political skill at navigating the dictatorship no longer was an asset, he withdrew and failed to manage what was happening.
It might be obvious already that Cercas is skeptical of all politicians, especially the heroes. For Cercas, even Suárez’s most famous moment, when he stayed in his seat in the Congress of Deputies and refused to obey Tijero’s orders to lay on the floor, was little more than politicking and gestures. Yet he is not the only one to refuse. Two other men join him: Santiago Carrillo, the leader of the Communist Party and the one with the most to lose in a coup; and General Gutiérrez Mellado, the retired general who was Suárez’s right-hand man in controlling the military during the transition, and who on the entrance of Tejero confronted the soldiers for insubordination. Cercas sees them in more benign terms than he does Suárez: they do what they do because as older men they have grown into habits that happen to work to the advantage of the country. Note how in describing Mellado he mentions gestures (gesture is one of Cercas’s favorite words) but is respectful of a longtime Franco loyalist because he seems to hold to an ideal,
He didn’t like to recall that evening, undoubtedly because he didn’t consider his gesture of confronting the mutinous Civil Guards as a gesture of courage or grace or rebellion, or even as a sovereign gesture of liberty or as an extreme gesture of contrition or as an emblem of his career, but simply as the greatest failure of his life; but whenever anyone managed to get him to talk about it he dismissed it with the same words: “I did what they taught me at the Academy.” I don’t know if he ever added that the man in charge of the Academy where they taught him that was General Francisco Franco.
That leaves the King Juan Carlos as the fourth hero of the night. In popular memory he is remembered as the man who ordered the army back to its barracks and ended the coup early in the morning of the 24th. For Cercas, though, there is something not quite right. He notes that the King and Suárez had grown apart and suggests that the King did not appreciate it when Suárez clung to power. He also suggests that the King had grown close again to General Armada, his former secretary, and one of the leaders of the coup. Everything points to a King who was complicit in the coup or at least easily swayed. Although Cercas says it is hard to know what was happening in the Palace that night, it was one of many occasions that the King showed himself as something other than a democrat. It is a controversial position, yet Cercas advocates for it stridently:
The King’s project was democracy; more precisely: the King’s project was some form of democracy that would allow the monarch to take root; still more precisely: the King’s project was some form of democracy not because he found Francoism repugnant or because he was impatient to give up the powers he’d inherited from Franco or because he believed in democracy as a universal panacea, but because he believed in the monarchy and because he thought that as that moment a democracy was the only way to root the monarch in Spain.
Cercas has called the novel the genre of genres, which might help explain why, even though I called the book a novel in my introduction, it sounds as if it is a work of history. And for the most part it reads as a history, citing facts without injecting dialogue, setting, or other fictive techniques, and describing events in an analytical, rhetorical style. Cercas makes it clear in his introduction that he is writing a novel, and the distinction is critical, because Cercas has made claims in the book that are not verifiable, even though his writing suggests they are. No one knows for sure what happened that night, the participants have said little (mostly in allegiance to the King), and many have since died. Though both the King and Suárez are still living at this writing, Suárez has advanced Alzheimer’s and it is unlikely the King will ever speak. The only way the stories of the coup may come out is in a work of fiction. Yet the question remains, and this is perhaps why the book was so controversial, does the genre of the novel lead to the mistaken impression that this really is a history and what he describes really did happen? And how are you to approach a history where you know information is suspect, but you are not sure which information is real?
Cercas is a solid chronicler and his analysis and backstories of the intrigues are fascinating. He creates a web of possibilities for what is unknown and elaborates the machinations of all the different parties in great detail. The first two-thirds of the book are compelling in the way a well-written history can be (although, the rhetorical structure in the above quote about the King fill the book and become occasionally exasperating). Unfortunately, the last third of Anatomy becomes repetitive and tiresome as Cercas focuses on his true goal, tearing down Suárez: “It’s one thing to have participated in the founding of Spanish democracy and quite another to be a hero of democracy. Was he?” Cercas answers no. For him a politician must be pure in all decisions to be a hero, and Suárez certainly was not since he was a Francoist social climber. It seems an unrealistic position. But whether or not you hold that position, the last third of the book dwells on psychoanalyzing Suárez’s post-coup career, and as a result it is anti-climactic and makes for tiresome reading.
Anne McLean’s translation is solid and is true to Cercas’s rhetorical style and is as readable in English as it is in Spanish, where elaborate, clause-laden argumentative essays are more common. Her adherence to the author’s structure adds to the understanding of Cercas’s argumentative stance. Anatomy lacks great metaphors, images, or shades of meaning that would be difficult to render in English, but that does not take away from the translation, which handles Cercas’s occasionally baroque approach well.
The Anatomy of a Moment is a fascinating book. For those interested in Spanish history, and for those interested in a different approach to the novel, it proposes some intriguing questions. It is unfortunate, then, that Cercas’s obsessions, no matter how well intentioned, make the last third of the book an uneven read.
Paul Doyle is a writer, teacher, and web developer based in Seattle. He writes about literature and film, especially Spanish and Arabic language literature, at By the Firelight. He was recently published in the literary journal Under Hwy 99.
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