The hero of retreat


In the 30 years since Spain’s failed coup d’etat of 1981 the event has been buried by lies, half-lies and legends, says Javier Cercas, which is why his latest book seeks ‘order in chaos’

‘IT’S A strange book,” says Javier Cercas. He’s talking about his latest – and, some say, his best – work, The Anatomy of a Moment. And if the Spanish writer says it’s strange, what are his readers to think? Most of them will be familiar with Cercas’s 2001 novel The Soldiers of Salamis, which took an episode from the Spanish civil war and fused it with a fictional underpinning to form an intensely believable piece of fiction.

Soldiersbecame a cult favourite, sold more than a million copies worldwide, won six literary awards in Spain and was turned into a film by David Trueba. Cercas’s readers awaited his new book with considerable anticipation, and might be forgiven for being baffled – or annoyed – by the appearance of The Anatomy of a Moment.It’s not a novel – nor is it about the perennially fascinating and unfailingly romantic civil war.

Instead, it’s a detailed exploration of a more recent event in Spanish history: 400 pages of dense and intricate prose that delves deeper and deeper into the mirage-like realities of the failed coup d’etat of 1981. Next Wednesday is the 30th anniversary of the day when civil guards entered the Spanish parliament building and started shooting. The event was captured live by Spanish television cameras, and the sensational pictures have become familiar all around the world – but especially in Spain. Next Wednesday, the Spanish media will re-run the footage with commentary from every journalist, historian, comedian and crackpot with an oddball theory thrown in for good measure.

FIVE YEARS AGO, on the 25th anniversary, Cercas was at home watching the annual coup-fest when he noticed something he never had before. “I was interested in the stuff – everybody’s interested in the stuff in Spain,” he says, in his rapid-fire, accented, dramatic English. “We think that we are a democratic country – a modern, even post-modern, country, blah, blah, blah. But in this moment when this civil guard with this hat and this moustache stands up in the parliament, it’s like all the historical devils are there. This García Lorca character, you know?

“And then I saw – ‘Hey, wait a moment: what is this? Wait, wait, wait’ – something I’ve seen a lot of times. Which was this extraordinary image of Adolpho Suárez staying there alone, with all the seats around him empty. I said, ‘Wow, what an image.’ It was as if I was seeing it for the first time. This guy that I didn’t respect at all at that time. Why did he do that? Why did he sit there? And there are two other guys who also did it. Why? Everybody else in the parliament building is diving for cover – as is logical, because if they shoot at me, I would go to the basement. Personally.”

Why did the outgoing prime minister return to his seat and stay there?

It was such an obvious question, Cercas says, that nobody had asked it. “I like these kinds of questions. I think that the real enigmas are not what nobody knows, but what everybody has seen but nobody has paid enough attention to. That’s what’s enigmatic in life.”

Cercas reckoned he had found the central characters for his new work of fiction. The three men who refused to dive for cover when the shooting started on February 23rd, 1981 were Suárez, Gutiérrez Mellado and Santiago Carillo. Their actions on that day made them look heroic, but in fact they were regarded as traitors by various sections of Spanish society at the time.

“Mellado was a Francoist soldier who changed the army into a democratic army,” Cercas says. “I went to the houses of his comrades asking for him – not one, but a lot of them – and they told me, ‘Please you should not pronounce this name in this house.’ He was hated. He still is, by the old guys. Carrillo was a communist who at that time decided to change and become a social democrat, accept the monarchy and so on. So he, too, was a traitor for his comrades.”

As for Suárez, pretty much everybody in the country considered him a traitor. “The Franco guys dreamed of him as the guy who could make Francoism last another 20 years and then, in less than a year, he changed all this. Thanks to this treason we have democracy in Spain – and these three were the guys who made the decision.”

Cercas set out to research his topic, which, he says, was a bit like researching the Kennedy assassination. “There’s a lot of books and journalism around this. I read all these. I talked to a lot of people who are still alive. I was working for two years. And I wrote a draft of a book – a novel, like Soldiers of Salamis – but it didn’t work.” He says this casually, quickly – but it must have been quite a blow to have spent so much time preparing the ground-work for a novel that was never going to happen.

He went on holidays with his family and tried to put it out of his head for a while. By chance, he came across an article by Umberto Eco, which reported that almost a quarter of Britons thought Winston Churchill was a fictional character.

“That was it,” he says. He had his book. It just wasn’t going to be a novel.

He would take an almost forensic approach to his topic, he decided. But The Anatomy of a Momentwouldn’t be just a straight history book, either.

“At that time I felt that the coup d’etat of 1981 was a collective fiction, a national fiction. In the 30 years since it happened it has been buried by lies, half-lies, legends, funny stories, crazy stories, etc, etc, etc. And so to write fiction on this fiction was redundant. But what could be relevant would be to do exactly the contrary. Reality is chaos. Literature – art, in general – puts order on chaos, manipulates it so we can understand. This book tries to look for an order in chaos.”

The form of the book is thus no accident but a central concern. Its structure had to be strong enough to sustain this enormous amount of historical research, hold it together without tidying it up.

Thematically, meanwhile, the book continues to explore the theme of heroism which made The Soldiers of Salamissuch a compelling – and emotional – read.

“I think my last three books are a reflection on heroism and bravery,” Cercas says. “Courage is a virtue which has been totally hijacked by fascism – and it is very important. Physical and moral bravery are very important. Like intelligence. You can use it very well, or you can use it to invent Auschwitz.

“Soldiers talk about the classic hero; the heroes of the battle of Salamis, for example. But this is the hero of retreat; a new kind of hero, not one who goes always forward but who sometimes draws back.”

FOR CERCAS, THESEare not abstract concepts; they have an immediate and personal resonance. “I was 13 years old when Franco died,” he says. “And I remember the smell of that. It was rotten, the moral atmosphere. I don’t want that for my kids – I don’t want that for me.”

While he was writing The Anatomy of a Moment, his father died. “What I was trying to do, in fact, in trying to understand this beautiful gesture of Adolfo Suárez, was trying to understand my father. He was a big supporter of Suárez and we were quarrelling all the time about this.” But the luxury to disagree is, he says, the essence of democracy.

“I know there is a difference between having democracy and not having it. This book is a way of saying that democracy is very, very important and at the same time really, really fragile. And we are responsible for it.”

Courage is a virtue which has been totally hijacked by fascism . . . You can use it very well, or you can use it to invent Auschwitz