Reigning Spain: the coup that wasn't


HISTORY: The Anatomy of a Moment, By Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean, Bloomsbury, 403pp, £18.99

ALMOST EXACTLY 30 years ago a mustachioed Lieut Col Antonio Tejero, proudly wearing the uniform and shiny tricorne hat of the Guardia Civil, burst into the main chamber of the Spanish parliament brandishing a pistol. Thus began what Spaniards refer to as 23-F, the attempted coup d’etat of February 23rd, 1981. The higher echelons of the civil guard were traditionally staffed by military officers, and Tejero was the frontman of a military-led operation against Spain’s fledgling democracy. Gen Franco, the last of Europe’s prewar dictators, had died but five and a half years earlier, still in power, and the parliamentary monarchy that the new King Juan Carlos I had established was far from solid. Unbeknown to the plotters, events in the chamber were broadcast live on radio; they were also filmed by television cameras, giving us footage that is familiar to anyone with an interest in recent Spanish history. I recall being fascinated by the dramatic scenes, although I was only a schoolgirl with an incipient interest in modern languages, and they are one of my earliest political memories.

It is this footage that Javier Cercas takes as a point of departure for his latest, and by far his best, book. This is not a historical novel in the mode of Cercas’s earlier Soldiers of Salamis. It has elements of the “nonfiction novel” of Truman Capote, but it is characterised above all by the emotional involvement in the past that one finds in the works of WG Sebald. The Anatomy of a Momentis, then, a mix of history, imaginative speculation and personal reflection, and it offers a compulsive narrative of the events of the 23-F against the backdrop of Spain’s transition to democracy.

For Cercas the iconic image of the 1981 coup is the refusal of Spain’s beleagured prime minister, Adolfo Suárez, to obey Tejeros order to lie on the floor. Suárez sits resolutely in his seat while his deputy, Gen Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, challenges Tejero’s men to put down their weapons. Out of camera shot, the leader of the Spanish Communist Party, Santiago Carrillo, also stays put, impassively smoking a cigarette. These three gestures of resistance provide the backbone of Cercas’s narrative, which sets out to examine not just the chronology of and individuals behind the 23-F but also the motivations of the three men who, coming from very different political backgrounds, put their lives on the line that day.

Suárez had been appointed by Juan Carlos in 1976 to bring in democracy. An apparently inauspicious choice, as he had held office under Franco, Suárez was to prove a formidable tactician. He convinced the Francoist establishment to vote itself out of existence and so effect a legal transition to democracy. He cajoled the Spanish communists – the main clandestine opposition to the dictator – into accepting this legal framework, despite their desire for a clearer rupture with the past, and he convinced them to declare allegience to the crown. Suárez then quietly legalised their party on Easter Saturday 1977, when the political and military establishments were on holiday. He oversaw the introduction of a new constitution in 1978, and the first democratic elections in Spain since 1936. But by 1981 Suárez seemed impotent in the face of enormous economic challenges, rising ETA terrorism and increased saber rattling by an army disturbed by the liberal direction Spain was taking. As the coup erupted Suárez was being voted out of office, having lost the confidence of parliament, king and country.

Like Suárez’s, Carrillo’s political career was waning. As a young man he had fought against Franco in the civil war, and he was accused of involvement in war atrocities. Nevertheless, he facilitated Suárez in guiding the Communist Party towards renouncing its historical discourse of antifascism in return for full democratic participation; both were achieved against trenchant military opposition and the dismay of Carrillo’s party. The dramatic rise of the socialists under Felipe González had been unexpected, and the communists faced electoral irrelevance by 1981.

The last and least well-known of Cercas’s triumvirate, Gutiérrez Mellado, was a former army officer who as a young man had fought for Franco in the civil war. After the dictator’s death he had valiantly worked behind the scenes to convince the army of the need for democracy. His gesture of resistance to the 1981 coup, confronting armed officers, is interpreted by Cercas as symbolic contrition for previous mistakes. Indeed, in his dissection of the film footage from 1981 Cercas is fascinated by the political journey that Gutiérrez Mellado, Carrillo and Suárez had made, in each case crossing what previouly would have been a political Rubicon in the entrenched landscape of Spanish politics.

The most interesting aspect of Cercas’s book is its depiction of the general political atmosphere in which the coup took place. There was, Cercas argues, much loose talk – in general society as well as political circles and the barracks – of the need for a political realignment, perhaps via a government of “national unity” led by an army officer. Even the king’s newfound frustration with Suárez suggested a certain ambivalence, although Juan Carlos moved swiftly to quash the coup, once it occurred. From this perspective the coup was a significant step in the consolidation of Spanish democracy, concentrating civilian and military minds alike.

Cercas’s book is timely for another reason. As Spain today confronts the legacy of its civil war, for instance opening up mass graves left untouched since the 1930s, removing Falangist symbols from public buildings, and legislating to pardon the unjustly executed, it has become all too easy to criticise the transition to democracy for not having dealt with these issues earlier. The fragility of the democratic structures that Suárez magicked out of the legal framework of the dictatorship, and the very real threat of military intervention at the time, have slipped from view. Cercas’s contribution is to remind us of the precariousness and uncertainty of those early democractic years, and of the debt Spain owes to Adolfo Suárez for laying the foundations of its present democracy.

Alison Ribeiro de Menezes lectures in Spanish at University College Dublin. Javier Cercas will speak, in English, about The Anatomy of a Momentat the Cervantes Institute, Lincoln Place, Dublin 2, next Thursday at 6pm