Coup D'Medias

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

translated by Anne McLean (Bloomsbury, 2011)

On the 23rd of February 1981, a group of civil guards burst into the Spanish parliament in midsession. Led by Lieutenant Colonel Tejero, they took the parliamentarians hostage under gunpoint. Their aim was to remove the current prime minister, Adolfo Suárez, and largely reverse the transition to democracy that Suárez had overseen since Franco’s death. By default, Spanish television recorded this attempted, but ultimately failed, coup d’état, making it possibly the only coup ever captured on TV. In his gripping The Anatomy of a Moment, Javier Cercas structures his portrayal of the Spanish transition to democracy based on these clips.

At first glance, the clips (which you can find on YouTube) seem to show that all the parliamentarians hid under their chairs once Tejero and his accomplices opened fire. But Cercas points out that not all parliamentarians shied away. The three notable exceptions were the current prime minister, Suárez, his deputy and chief of staff of the Spanish army, Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, and the party leader of the recently legalized Communist party, Santiago Carrillo. Guided by Borges who once suggested that “every destiny, however long and complicated, essentially boils down to a single moment—the moment a man knows, once and for all, who he is,” Cercas broods over why it was these three, and not any others, who defiantly stayed in their seat and continued smoking—or as in the case of Mellado, tried to wrestle one of the putschists—what the elusive gestures on the clips meant, and if they posed for TV, or for history.

Reading Cercas’s account today, one is hard pressed to see how they could have posed for future history books. For, despite the current economic turmoil, Spain’s parliamentary democracy is far from threatened, nor is that of any other E.U. state. But this failed coup occurred on a continent with a radically different political climate. In Luis Buñuel’s last film, That Obscure Object of Desire, the plot unfolds against the backdrop of the constant nuisance of unnamed terrorist acts. However distant it seems today, this was the Europe in which the coup took place: five years after the deaths at the Stammheim prison, three years before the I.R.A. bombs almost killing Thatcher, and amidst the Italian “Years of Lead.” With great breadth, Cercas cogently immerses the reader in the political expectations of the era. He exposes in detail how many segments in the Spanish political establishment entertained the idea of a coup during the years leading up to February 1981 (which, history suggests, they would continue to do: Spanish parliamentary democracy suffered from another two failed attempts before it joined the European Union in 1986). Excluded from the equation was that toppling Suárez also meant violating the democratic constitution. Foremost on people’s minds was the mass unemployment that the second oil crisis had left in its wake and the unprecedented level of ETA violence. Annoyed by the uncultured and provincial arriviste’s grip on power, plotters even discussed the need for a “surgical coup” openly in the media. Suárez’s, Mellado’s, and Carrillo’s gestures, therefore, in Cercas’s take, suggested that they knew what was coming. Rather than being subversive, they accepted what seemed inevitable. In their daring resignation, they suspected that this Spanish attempt at democracy would end as its last try—with executions followed by a military takeover. They posed because of, rather than for, history. 

Cercas originally planned to write a novel about this coup. But he resigned himself to the facts, as they seemed to be carried by an internal logic, which he found amply dramatic; when searching for the meaning behind the postures, he happens upon a set of historical symmetries. Not only had Mellado- and Carrillo once fought each other in the Spanish Civil War, the former for the Fascists, and the latter for the Popular Front, they had both also just recently embraced a democracy which they had spent most of their lives rejecting. At the same time, it was their reconciliation under the auspices of Suárez that finally triggered the coup. Here, Cercas spots additional, slightly more far-fetched, symmetries. He contends that the three politicians have their almost exact counterparts in the three architects of the coup. For what individually motivated these plotters was what they saw as the treasonous action by one of the politicians.

By uncovering the connections linking the protagonists,   The Anatomy of a Moment reads a bit like an anthropological description of the coup, and then by extension, of Spanish society during the transition. But using novels and films rather than theoretical models as heuristic devices, Cercas deduces a moral from the event. After Franco’s death, the Spanish decided not to investigate the crimes committed during the dictatorship. Seen as contaminating the roots of democracy, this “pact of forgetting” has recently been increasingly questioned in Spain. But Cercas argues that it was precisely by setting aside past misdeeds that democracy could grow; the coup would have happened earlier had they not. With clear echoes of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s depictions of the inner mechanics behind, and decisive turning points of, the revolutions in Ethiopia and Iran, Cercas traces the prehistory of the coup in the corridors of power. He pits the development as constantly being in concert with the risky negotiations leading Spain out of four decades of dictatorship. In spite of not being the last attempted coup, Cercas infers that the failure of this one marked the end of an era in which the years of democracy had been anomalous. Yet, when returning to Borges’s suggestion, he rejects that this is the meaning of Suárez’s gestures. They neither carry meaning in themselves, nor epitomize Suárez. Instead, Cercas self-reflexively suggests that their essence resides in their applicability for him as a prism with which to deduce this moral lesson. And closer to home, the resignation at the heart of these gestures lets him understand why his father, as so many other Spaniards, had been a Falangist. The Anatomy of a Moment is at once a persuasive moral tale sprinkled with personal reflections and a very readable search for the apt epistemology to tackle the fictional appearance of a coup on TV.

Contributor

Pehr Englen

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