A great book and a good movie on the Spanish failed golpe of 30 years ago
Javier Cercas, Anatomía de un instante (Random House Mondadori 2009)
El 23-F, film directed by Chema de la Peña (2011)
World’s literature is full of historical novels as well as of literary historical accounts – Herodotus, Caesar, Dumas, Tolstoy, Orwell, Lussu, etc etc. Yet Anatomía de un instante (English translation The Anatomy of a Moment, Blumsbury 2011), rewarded with the premio Nacional de Narrativa of 2010 is unique. It represents a genre of its own, a novel/essay/reportage hybrid that seems to have been invented to match my taste with perfection: literary skill, historical rigour, journalist inquisitiveness, political sensitivity and human depth. All in 450 pages which were a fantastic companion during my summer holiday, and to which I get back now having watched its cinema counterpart, El 23-F (17 Hours).
Anatomia de un instante is about the failed golpe of the 23rd February 1981. It is a very detailed historical account, but instead of starting from a historical problem (such as the origins of the golpe, the emergence of Spanish democracy...), it starts from a literary question on a specific instant, known to all Spanish people from the TV footage of the military storming of the Parliament: why did prime minister Adolfo Suárez stay seated at his place, while the soldiers shouted ‘to the floor’ and their bullets whistled around him? Was it a heroic act, mere political posturing, a form of atonement? Historians may be good at answering the big questions, but only an accomplished novelist can answer such intimate ones.
The book is built around six characters. The event of the golpe is described each time again, from the eyes, and the mind, of a different protagonist. The six characters are on one side the three members of parliament who did not obey the golpist orders: Suárez, the deputy Prime Minister General Gutiérrez Mellado, who had himself taken part in Franco’s golpe forty-five years earlier, and communist leader Santiago Carrillo. And on the other side the three protagonists on the golpe: the lieutenant colonel Tejero, whom Cercas, importantly, refuses to treat as an isolated nutter as popular accounts do, and the generals Milans del Bosch and Armada. Of the six characters, though, the one Cercas is most interested in is Suárez, and with good reason: it is an ideal type of the ‘pure politician’ and therefore a universal character for a novelist, but also the core protagonist of Spanish democratisation, and therefore a prime object for historical inquiry. And if you read the book until the end, you will discover a much more personal, intimate reason why Cercas, who in his youth politically despised Suárez, came to be so fascinated by his figure... and why understanding Suárez is so important in order to understand today’s Spain.
The attention to characters comes at the cost of neglect for the context: both the international one (the roles of the USA and the Vatican, for instance) and the social ones (we are repeatedly told of social unrest, but what was it about?). This would be a problem academically, but it isn’t literarily. The description is in incredible detail and with such skill, that even if you obviously know the end, you get stuck in the suspense of the events, six times over (in fact, some recent research shows that books are more gripping when you know the ending: spoilers do not exist). Moreover, the style is beautiful, in particular through the multi-level discussion, in single long sentences, of multiple counterfactuals when investigating different possible interpretations of the event. It makes you love the most difficult bit of Spanish grammar, the intensive use of the subjunctive, much more precise than in Italian and especially French, and more faithful to Latin. I wonder how the English translator could cope with such multiple 'if', 'if only', ‘as if’, 'even if’ with different subjective degrees of probability...
The movie El 23-F tells the same story, but rather than in 450 pages of novel/essay, in 90 minutes of political thriller. The context which is just in the background in Cercas’ novel, here totally disappears, except short opening sequences of historical footage on the Spanish transition. The set is great: real tanks on the streets, and action in the real building of the Congreso de los Diputados (where the bullets holes are still visible). The movie is just on the 17 hours of the golpe, from Tejero’s storming in the Congress at 6pm to his surrender at 1pm the day after. And the focus is just on three characters: Tejero, Armada, and the king. The first two are fantastic Shakesperean characters, combinations of Richard III and Macbeth, evil conspirators but also tragically tormented by internal conflicts and occasionally ridiculous. By contrast, the king is here presented in a hagiographic way: he just does the right thing defending democracy, and he appears at the same time a hero and as a nice bloke. Shame that, as Cercas convincingly shows in his book, the behaviour of the king was actually unsteady, with major faults and if eventually crucially redeeming, only because of his secretary Fernandéz Campo’s interposition. At the Warsaw Film Festival, director de la Peña said that he showed the events ‘simply as they happened in reality’. I could not resist asking him why then we can’t see General Cortina (the head of the intelligence, whose ambiguous role is discussed from all angles by Cercas, and is still disputed in Spain). He answered ‘buena pregunta’, before making the point that the role of Cortina, if there was any, was before the golpe, and therefore outside the time frame of the movie. A good answer cinematographically, but a bad one historically. I don't trust who pretends to tell history ‘just as it happened in reality’.
The thirtieth anniversary of Tejero’s exploit has shown how literarily and cinematographically inspiring the drama of a failed coup can be. 2011 is also the thirtieth anniversary of the ‘self-golpe’ by Jaruzelski in Poland and the twentieth anniversary of the failed coup in the Soviet Union, while next year will be the tenth anniversary of the failed golpe against Chavez in Venezuela. I am looking forward to Polish, Russian and Venezuelan writers and directors taking up this tremendous genre.