The last battle of the Spanish Civil War: My review of Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas

ub_tejero_coup_etatFollowing his unconvincing meditation on American atrocities in the Vietnam war in “The speed of light” Javier Cercas returns to his own country’s history for his latest work. “The anatomy of a moment” revisits the theme of the Spanish Civil War and its consequences that Cercas so brilliantly explored in “Soldiers of Salamis”. However in his new book he eschews fiction, even the “post-modern” variety that he practices, which blurs the distinction between the real and the imaginary. Instead he employs a part philosophical, part journalistic meditation on the 1981 attempted coup to overthrow Spanish democracy.

“The anatomy of a moment” focuses on the three parliamentarians who refused to duck when the Civil Guard who invaded the Cortes opened fire. They were Gutteriez Mellado, a former Francoist general now deputy Prime Minister, Santiago Carillo, head of the Spanish Communist party, and Adolfo Suarez, the outgoing Prime Minister. Suarez is above all the hero of the book – in Cercas account a Francoist functionary and “provincial non-entity” who grew into the architect of democracy and a giant of Spanish history. The author returns again and again to the image of Suarez sitting alone on the prime minister’s bench as the bullets fly around him, one of only three people prepared to risk their necks while those with more impecible democratic credentials cower behind their desks, as most of the rest of us would naturally and rationally have done in similar circumstances.

Parts of the book are difficult – the author talks to the reader as if they are already au fait with the history and politics of Spain. This leads, I thought, to a richer experience than books which spoonfeed the reader the historical background: in the end you feel you have earned the understanding you have achieved.

In places the book has the characteristics of a non-fiction thriller as the details of both the coup, led by senior elements in the army, and the countercoup, led by the King, are plotted. The book is also very moving, particularly regarding the travails of Suarez in later life, and a deeply affecting coda when the author reflects upon the life and politics of his own father.

The book is also deeply political, rejecting a current view prevalent in Spain that the rupture between Francoism and democracy was false and that Suarez ensured that those who had power under the dictatorship retained it under the constitutional monarchy. Cercas argues instead that the rupture was real and that Suarez was a “hero of the retreat” from dictatorship. That the author is prepared to set out such forthright opinions on this and other aspects of the coup add to the pleasure of the book: it is widely researched, deeply opinionated history, provocative, but not gratuitously controversialist. It demands the reader thinks while keeping them entertained.

A great book.

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