Thursday 17 August 2017

Review: The Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas

Bloomsbury, €22.99, Hardback

The borderlands between fact and fiction have never been more attractive to writers and readers, and the Spanish novelist Javier Cercas knows the territory well. A previous book, The Soldiers of Salamis, was a semi-fictional exploration of the Spanish Civil War; here he returns to another crucial episode in the history of his country in this dense but gripping account of soldiers, politicians, mixed motives and the lust for power.

For most of us, the failed military coup in Spain in 1981 has become a vague memory of armed men waving guns in the Madrid parliament, soon thwarted by the resolution of King Juan Carlos and the lack of popular support. Even in Spain, time has obscured what really happened.

Cercas first wrote the story as a novel; then he changed his mind. The more he discovered about the coup, the more he explored what he calls "a shimmering labyrinth of almost always irreconcilable memories", the more he came to feel that "for once, reality mattered more to me than fiction".

His account revolves around one scene and four main actors. Extraordinary though it may seem, the coup was caught on film by television cameras, and Cercas dissects every movement made by the coup leader Colonel Tejero; the Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez; his deputy, General Mellado; and Santiago Carrillo, the head of the Communist Party.

Cercas is fascinated by the courage shown by Suarez, the not particularly heroic politician who had managed the transition to parliamentary democracy after Franco, and who refused to take cover when Tejero threatened him and the militia opened fire.

Mellado and Carrillo also defied the soldiers, and in one of the most riveting passages Cercas, having recounted how they were taken away expecting to be shot, traces both men's careers back to the Civil War when they were sworn enemies during the siege of Madrid.

With this book, then, Cercas is not only writing a scrupulous, truthful account of the failed coup, he is helping to bring the tormented story of the Spanish Civil War to its conclusion at last. His subtle intelligence, narrative gifts and intellectual honesty are outstanding.

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