Issue 124: 2017 10 12:The Anatomy of a Moment (J.R.Thomas)

12 October 2017

The Anatomy of a Moment

by Javier Cercas.

 reviewed by J.R.Thomas

Much has been written in the last ten days about the attempted or proposed or successful illegal secession or independence or left wing coup in Catalonia (do take your pick of pejoratives).  Whilst a fine old political mess, with Catalonia’s new leader swiftly wrong- footing Snr Rajoy and his government in Madrid (and now seemingly getting wrongfooted back) it is far from the gravest crisis of modern Spanish democracy.  Indeed, you might argue, it is democracy that is causing the current trouble.

In February 1981, with democracy not yet six years old and untried systems and politicians pulling levers and pushing switches with little idea of the outcome, that new Spanish democracy came remarkably close to foundering, and reverting to what almost certainly would have been a military government and worse.

Javier Cercas’s book “The Anatomy of a Moment” begins with the extraordinary events of early evening, 23rd February 1981, 23F as it is known in Spain, when a unit of the Spanish army marched into a session of the Cortes, the Spanish parliament, and ordered all those present down on the floor.  Three of the politicians defied them; leading to a dramatic night filmed and transmitted, for a while (until the soldiers realised that they were making television history) on Spanish TV, the first attempted coup d’état to be broadcast live.

Spain has an incredibly painful twentieth century political history; chaos and confusion ending in an appallingly bloody three year civil war and then a thirty six year dictatorship; itself ending with the return of democracy and the monarchy, almost as things had been in 1931.  So much happened, so many bad things were done, so many people were confused about what they or their parents did, so much guilt and confusion, that the events of the 1930’s were generally not discussed but by tacit agreement were forgotten, never referred to, not dug up, figuratively or literally.  In the same way, remarkably little has been published on the events of 23rd February and there was again quiet agreement that the less said, the better.  Until 2009 when the journalist and novelist Javier Cercas gave up on a novel about those hours, and decided to publish his researches instead.  Cercas’s work often reads like a novel; he frequently asks himself whether what unfolded was indeed true, whether the protagonists were real or characters invented for the story, for the events.   It was translated into English in 2009, in a magnificent piece of work by Anne MacLean capturing Cercas’s bewildered passion for the events he describes, and his gradual growth of sympathy for Adolfo Suarez, at that moment a ruined and broken Prime Minister, but next day a national hero.  Now out in paperback, and whilst this is a book of such insight and passion that it deserves hardback binding, if the purse won’t stretch, do get it in paperback.

But for readers whose memories are shorter, a little background may assist.  Francisco Franco became dictator of Spain after a vicious military campaign ending in 1939, keeping her out of the Second World War.  His harsh rule gradually softened in the 1950’s and he became regarded as a conservative Catholic authoritarian, a bulwark of anti-Communism in Europe at a time of great threats and fear.  Franco had an immensely romantic concept of a traditional monarchist Catholic Spain and nominated that he be succeeded by the then heir to the vacant Spanish throne, Prince Juan Carlos, son of the Count of Barcelona of whose political leanings Franco had severe suspicions.  What he did not realise was that Juan Carlos had similar sympathies to his father, and keeping his intentions quiet, formed friendships with a number of politicians of similarly liberal views.  The leader of those was Adolfo Suarez, a Francoist junior minister of humble background who Juan Carlos, on his accession in 1975, appointed as Prime Minister.  Suarez, who knew the old regime intimately from the inside, immediately began to dismantle the dictatorship and prepare for democracy, so quickly and successfully that in 1977 he was able to call a general election – which he won overwhelmingly.

Suarez was a remarkable man, the more so for his long service within the old regime.  After his election in 1977 he pushed through a whole series of changes and reforms, including and very controversially, legalising the Communist Party.  Perhaps inevitably he paid the price of every reformer in a hurry – by 1981 he was regarded by the right as a traitor, by the military as a security risk, by the left as of suspicious motives, by business as too pro-labour, by labour as too pro-business; he had alienated every significant group in the country.  In late 1980 even the King began to think that Suarez could no longer govern effectively and in February 1981 he agreed to step down.  So on 23rd February voting began in the Cortes to elect Suarez’s successor.

Cercas explores two things in his great work.  Firstly, who was really behind the attempted coup when the army arrived that evening?  And secondly, what on earth did Suarez, his deputy Prime Minister Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado (a former senior Francoist general) and Santiago Carillo, leader of the Communist Party and a civil war veteran, think they were doing, literally standing up unarmed to two hundred soldiers?  The answer, says Cercas, is that they believed so passionately in the concept of free democratic Spain that they were all prepared to die for their cause; Suarez in particular, having achieved his ambitions and seeing his own career ruined in the process, almost welcomed the chance of an honourable and dramatic death.  That was not to be granted; although shots were fired nobody was hurt and the King, also realising the power of television, at midnight put on his army uniform and ordered all troops back to barracks.  After a few tense hours they obeyed and Spanish democracy survived, growing ever stronger today.

But who was behind the coup; who planned it, who knew of it?  Well, says Cercas, almost everybody knew of it by the day of 23F.  Perhaps not of the detail, but that something was planned.  There was a general feeling that democracy was not working, that pluralism was too weak for a fledging political society and a moribund economy.  What was needed was, in a phrase widely used in Madrid society,  a “touch on the tiller”, perhaps a government of national unity led by a senior general.  Most of the army thought that way, Suarez’s own party did; so, astonishingly, did much of the Left, and possibly even the King.  But the mechanics of touching the tiller got subverted by a group of army hotheads, most notably the leader of the soldiers who burst into the Cortes, Lt-Colonel Tejero, who had already been imprisoned briefly for a pathetic attempt at a coup in 1978, but then returned to the army.

Of course, with Suarez restored to his place as a national hero (but not to office) and the King also a hero and symbol of a new Spain, everybody denied almost everything.  Tejoro and a couple of Generals went to jail; major reforms of the army were introduced.  Even Cercas has been unable to find out exactly what went on.  But what he demonstrates is that something went on, that the conspiracy was much wider than those who were locked up for it, that Spain very nearly slipped back to its Francoist ways.  And most of all, that three brave men standing up to armed troops was a truly remarkable act.


The Anatomy of a Moment, by Javier Cercas, published in translation by Bloomsbury, should be available in any good bookshop



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