Monday, July 04, 2011

The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-five Minutes in History and Imagination by Javier Cercas (2011)

I got a copy of The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-five Minutes in History and Imagination by Javier Cercas (published in Spain in 2009, and in an English translation in 2011) through the Library Thing EarlyReviewers program. I have to admit that even though I requested it and I do have some interest in modern Spanish politics, it took me awhile to bring this book about a failed 1981 coup d'etat up to the top of my list. And while it was slow going at first, this book really exceeded my expectations and turned into something very unique and exciting.

My first clue that this was no ordinary history or political science book should have been the first two blurbs on the back of the book: "The best history book of the year" and "A masterpiece of twenty-first century European literature." Cercas is an established novelist in Spain, and found himself moved by the half an hour of video footage of the attempted February 23, 1981 takeover of the government by a faction of the military (commonly referred to as 23-F). Although the vote of a new Prime Minister that was going on at the time was being broadcast live on the radio, a couple of cameras were in the room recording when the soldiers entered. They recorded, unmanned, for about half an hour before they were both shut off. This footage is played often in Spain on the anniversary of the coup, and the reactions of the participants, particularly the recently disgraced Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez, inspired Cercas to write a novel. After the novel was done, it just didn't work for him, so he translated his extensive research and endless thoughts into this non-fiction novel of the events of the coup and the men on either side of the standoff.

During the coup, when the soldiers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero, entered the parliament floor and took the legislators hostage, three men refused to get down on the floor, even when the bullets started flying. I think wikipedia describes their reactions pretty well: "During the shooting of several machine gun rounds, whilst almost all deputies dropped terrified on the floor, three kept standing defiantly: acting Minister of Defense General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, who stood up and ordered Tejero to desist; acting President of the Government Adolfo Suárez, who remained sitting down instead of crouching on the floor; and Communist leader Santiago Carrillo, who, sitting down, calmly lit a cigarette and did not seem to be disturbed by the events." [You can get a hint of the coup here (and there is a lot more on You Tube -- search for "23 Febrero golpe de estado")]

But let's back up for a very tiny bit of Spanish history (feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if this is not your thing): In 1936, Francisco Franco led an unsuccessful coup against the left-wing Popular Front government. The coup started the Spanish Civil War, which pitted left against right and ended with Franco declaring himself the leader of Spain for life. And he lived for another 40 years. Knowing that he would need to take steps to carry on Francoism after his death, Franco allowed the heir of the Spanish monarchy, Juan Carlos, to return to Spain from Italy and be educated there. Franco was secure that Juan Carlos would continue his policies after his death and named him his official successor. He wasn't aware, however, that Juan Carlos had been meeting with political dissidents behind Franco's back, and when he came to power in 1975, he masterminded the transition of Spain from a dictatorship to a democracy.

The major creator of the new Spanish state was the first Prime Minister (who was initially appointed by the King but later elected democratically), Adolfo Suarez. Cercas describes Suarez as a "pure politician" and he did what seemed almost impossible -- got the Francoist legislature to vote their system out and a democratic one in, legalized political parties, including Communism, and extended autonomy to distinct regions of Spain. It was all going pretty great until Suarez leaned a little too far to the left from his centrist foundation, while international politics leaned heavily to the right (Thatcher, Reagan). Add in the oil crisis and increased terrorist activity from the ETA and you have a bunch of Spaniards who think that Franco wasn't so bad and another coup and a return to the right might not be a bad idea.

The background details and results of the coup (which are covered extensively in the book) are way too complicated to get into here, but I'll just say that Cercas does an amazing job of combining historical research with his novelist's eye for human psychology and emotion. The book has a wonderful structure -- each section starts with a detailed analysis of the existing video from inside the legislative chamber and ends with a step-by-step move through the action of the coup itself. In between we get the histories of all the major players, the cultural and political climate leading up to the coup, and the ultimate consequences of the military action.

Cercas' writing style takes a little getting used to, but as a lover of long sentences and multiple asides, I got into it pretty quickly. Here's a representative example: "I insist: I'm not saying that this was the only possible result of the coup for the monarchy if the King opposed it; what I'm saying is that, like any of the rest of the plotters, before joining the coup Cortina might have arrived at the conclusion that the risks the coup entailed for the monarchy were much fewer than the benefits it might bring in its wake, and that in consequence the coup was a good coup because it would triumph whether it triumphed or failed: the triumph of the coup would strengthen the Crown (that's at least what Cortina might have thought and what Armada and Milans were thinking); its failure would likewise do so."


Obviously this isn't the book for everyone, and I have a little background in this kind of thing, so I might be a special audience (I was a Spanish minor in college and took a class all in Spanish about modern Spain), but if you have a little patience and some interest in Spanish politics, try picking this one up. I've never read anything else like it.

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