On February 23, 1981, a video camera hanging in the Spanish Cortes recorded thirty-five minutes of a coup attempt that has come to be known as 23-F. It was not the first, or even the last, golpe de estado plotted during Spain’s transition to democracy, but it was the most cinematic. At around six in the evening, in the middle of a vote to anoint a new prime minister, Lt. Col. Antonio Tejero, armed with a pistol and accompanied by 150 civil guardsmen, stormed the chamber and held its 350 parliamentarians hostage. In the confusion of the moment shots were fired into the ceiling, and nearly everyone dove for cover. Everyone, that is, except for three people, who refused to budge even as the bullets whizzed past. They were outgoing Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez; his deputy prime minister, Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado; and the leader of the Spanish Communist Party, Santiago Carrillo.

Unbeknownst to those present, the camera continued to roll, capturing the moment of curious, if inspired, resistance. When armed guardsmen later led the three men from the chamber, it looked as though they would be taken outside and shot. This did not happen. Although Suárez, Gutiérrez Mellado and Carrillo had every reason to expect that the events would take a violent turn, the golpistas had envisioned a “soft coup.” But the errant shots left a different impression, and as it was the recorded impression, it became the defining image of 23-F: a burst of gunfire, tiers of abandoned benches and the three unperturbed heroes of the moment.

The events pay a certain price for their cinematic flair. To see Tejero stride into the Cortes, with his tiny pistol and tricorne hat, is almost to be convinced that the coup was a mad plot hatched by a lunatic. It seemed a work of folly, but it had sprung from a political culture of irresponsible (yet ultimately irresistible) opportunism characteristic of the later years of the Transition. The plot that day was more coordinated than it appeared on the video fragment recorded in the Cortes. There was a declaration of martial law in Valencia, and preparations for the same in Madrid. Coupled with the takeover of Parliament, the military maneuvers were meant to back King Juan Carlos into a corner, while his former secretary and lifelong confidant, now golpista, Gen. Alfonso Armada, posed as an interlocutor in good faith and then offered up his candidacy as prime minister, ostensibly to assuage the military and forestall disaster. Just six years after Franco’s death and two since the ratification of a new constitution, it was an odd proposition tailored to a country in transition. The coup was an overthrow of a democratically elected government that nonetheless could flourish only with the approval of the king, who at the time embodied Francoist Spain in decline and democratic Spain in ascendance. His power was singular because its incarnation was double.

In the early morning of February 24, seven hours after the assault on the Cortes, King Juan Carlos appeared in uniform as commander of the armed forces to deliver an instantly iconic speech on national television; in it, he denounced the coup and effectively quashed it. Later that morning, in yet another moment memorialized on film, the hostages walked out of the Cortes unharmed.

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In his newly translated nonfiction book about the coup, The Anatomy of a Moment, published in Spain in 2009, the decorated Spanish novelist Javier Cercas is right to speak of “unreal images.” He means this in a couple of senses. The recorded images of 23-F are almost fantastical, certainly overripe. The footage, Cercas writes, could easily be “a scene from a cliché-ridden Spanish film fresh from the hackneyed brain of a mediocre imitator of Luis García Berlanga.” (Berlanga, who died last year at 89, made films that needled the Franco regime and the Catholic Church while outwitting government censors.) Once the events of the day became a “scene” captured on camera and relayed by television broadcast, Cercas suggests, they may well have ceased being real, becoming instead mere projections, part of the flittering unreality of television, which “contaminates everything it touches.”

But there’s also the content of the images, and here, too, appearances were deceiving. The broad and simple narrative arc of the coup, its recognizable personages (Tejero, for one, had tried to stage a coup two years earlier) and the adventurism of its final moments all belie the far stranger backstory. Previous attempts to push past the “hard marble” of 23-F (to borrow from Flaubert) and into the “penetrating fog” of what had enabled it nearly four years into Spain’s fledgling democracy are for the most part buried under a hefty bibliography of Transition history and hagiography. Until Cercas had taken it up, the story had yet to come to life in prose; it had endured among Spaniards, but as a kind of pat inflationary anecdote affirming the triumph of the democratic transition. The king—and Spain—had a choice between democracy and something else, and chose democracy.

There is good reason for caution in turning over the story’s more confounding particulars. This is the stuff of very recent history, and the wariness of Spaniards to dig beneath the surface of the Transition is a reminder that the collective wound inflicted by Franco and the civil war hasn’t healed. The figures of Suárez, Gutiérrez Mellado and Carrillo are perhaps to be kept at bay; heroes of 23-F, and of the Transition, they are also the bespattered protagonists of another, darker story. Suárez began as a devoted Francoist and was secretary general of the Movimiento Nacional before he dismantled it in a spectacular chameleon display of political savvy. His loyal and stalwart deputy, Gutiérrez Mellado, participated in the 1936 uprising against the Second Republic as a nationalist insurgent. Carrillo, for all his discretion and visionary Euro-Communism, is still dogged by rumors that he was responsible for the execution of 2,000 Fascist troops in 1936. The Transition gave each of them a second chance, an opportunity to be remembered as figures redeemed by the heroic sacrifice and vision of their twilight years.

This would also make them heroes of a certain type, according to Cercas: “heroes of betrayal.” To navigate their factions, and the country as a whole, through the shoals of political reform, they would have to betray the causes to which they’d once been loyal: Suárez to the Movimiento, Gutiérrez Mellado to the army and Carrillo to party purity. “Damn the Transition,” writes a disgruntled ex-Republican in Cercas’s novel Soldiers of Salamis (2001), and it is easy to understand the sentiment. The Transition was something that pleased no one: not the left, who felt that the socialists and communists had sold out ideological principles for political inclusion; not the far right, for whom democratic reform amounted to the utter destruction of the state as they knew it; and not even some moderates, who felt that change was coming too fast and benefiting too few. Cercas thinks the Transition was a success, and he’s probably right in a general sense. Democratic institutions in Spain have endured, even if the country has shown little tolerance for an honest public reckoning with the Franco era. But the power of Javier Cercas as an observer of Spain has less to do with his broad pronouncements about the past than with how he chooses to structure his inquiries into it. Filmed in secret and streaked by shadows, 23-F is an ideal subject for him.

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There is a significant narrative problem facing any historian or storyteller of 23-F. The documentation is just not there for the historian to offer definitive answers to the questions of the day. To what extent did the political class know the damage it was doing to democracy in the months prior, with its suggestive harangues against the current government? How had Suárez gone from near invincibility as prime minister to a shattered figure on his way out? Why, after all they had been through, did the three resisters of the moment take a stand that seemed like senseless bravado? The novelist, meanwhile, can easily lose his way in bottomless psychologizing. 23-F is the narrative capstone of the Transition, and describing it demands a flexibility of reportage and analysis. When the historical going gets tough, as it invariably does here, Cercas the novelist gently leaves all the facts where Cercas the essayist found them, and creates by their side a kind of simulacrum of the moment—more supple and analytically pliable, capable of showing us more even if what we’re looking at is ever so slightly different from the original. “I can often only try to reconstruct from indirect testimonies,” he writes, “stretching the limits of the possible until they touch the probable and with the pattern of the plausible trying to outline the shape of the truth.”

Cercas is primarily concerned with a novelistic question rather than a strictly historical one, and it dictates the form of the book. What were Suárez, Gutiérrez Mellado and Carrillo thinking when the shots were fired on 23-F? Was this bravery, affectation? These are essential but unanswerable questions, and they allow Cercas to do two things at once: construct a series of thought experiments (what might be thought of as his novelizing of the moment), and anatomize the broader history of the Transition through three of its principal figures. At the beginning of each of the book’s five sections is a short narrative description of the siege as it is unfolding within the Cortes on 23-F. These descriptions then open onto probing chapters about the principal players, their factions and the broader story of the Transition.

Mostly, though, these incursions lead us to Suárez, the story’s fulcrum and chief subject, who “while the bullets rip visible chunks of plaster out of the ceiling” sits “solitary, statuesque and spectral in a desert of empty benches.” At once proof of his mettle, the image also testifies to the reversal of Suárez’s fortunes during the Transition. His rise—triumphant, inspired, meteoric—was matched in potency only by his fall—slow, agonizing, inevitable—until he found himself that February solitary and abandoned, a mere shade of his former self. There are a couple of ways to explain Suárez’s undoing, and none of them will ever be sufficient to make sense of what remains one of the great mysteries of the Transition. How had a politician who had proven to be so brilliant suddenly revealed himself to be so inept?

Suárez had been virtually unbeatable at the polls since they came back into existence after Franco’s death, yet he found himself in increasingly dire straits in the spring of 1979, even though he had won another round of national elections that March. He blundered through his cabinet selection, alienating members of his party, and then, as if recognizing his mistake, kept his distance from Parliament. His relationship with the king—which was absolutely critical for him in order to stay above the fatal partisan pitch—quickly soured. This likely exacerbated the impact of his party’s poor showings in regional elections in Basque Country, Catalonia and Andalucía in March 1980, which drove a wedge through Suárez’s already unstable Union of the Democratic Centre. Yet this was the same Suárez who in 1976 had wrong-footed an entire class of seasoned diputados to get them to vote for a reform law that created the framework for popular elections and represented, as one historian put it, “political suicide” for the Francoists, hardliners and old guard. Then, in his boldest move to date, Suárez legalized the communist party the following April against the counsel of his advisers, but with the tacit support of the king. While the military smarted, he proceeded to further disassemble the institutions of the dictatorship and prepare the country for democratic elections, and later for the writing of the constitution. For Suárez, Cercas repeatedly tells us, “the most difficult thing was the easiest and the easiest was the most difficult.”

The question, though, is why? Cercas has a couple of ideas that run the book’s wide gamut of historical and psychological plausibility. The initial gloss Cercas provides is indisputable. Because political life in Franco’s Spain was utterly vertical, Suárez did what was required to curry favor and move up the rungs of the ladder. He became a creature of the institutions and mentality of Francoism. But when the game changed, and the institutions Suárez eventually presided over became democratic, he foundered in a system he didn’t know or deeply understand. He took criticism personally. He could be imperious, and tended to want to act unilaterally, all of which created resentment that now had institutional ramifications. When Suárez was driven to resign in January 1981, his successor, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo (whose investiture proceedings would be interrupted by 23-F), remarked that Suárez had not resigned for any concrete reason but rather “out of a state of mind.”

A couple of weeks after his resignation, and just five days before the coup, an editorial ran in El País that, with a flourish typical of the times, likened Suárez to a character in the 1959 Roberto Rossellini film General della Rovere. Cercas rehabilitates the reference and folds it into the narrative explanation of Suárez’s decline. According to El País, Suárez had curbed “the remains of Francoism” as democratic prime minister “like a convinced General Della Rovere transmuted into his role as defender of democracy.” The allusion was to the fictional Emanuele Bardone, an opportunist and petty swindler in war-torn Italy in the 1940s who, while collaborating with the Germans, pretends to be the recently killed freedom fighter General della Rovere in order to infiltrate a group of Italian resistance fighters being held in prison. Moved by what he sees there and inspired by the aura of della Rovere, Bardone eventually reneges on his agreement with the Germans. For this, he is taken before the firing squad with the other resistance fighters, rousing them all the while with shouts of “Viva Italia!

The comparison of Suárez to Bardone was meant to suggest Suárez’s essential opportunism as an unremarkable, possibly sordid figure “transmuted” into a democrat. Cercas is right to accept this insinuation, to a point. The king had named Suárez prime minister in July 1976 because he was something of an empty vessel. Had the king picked a better-known or more ambitious politician, a future government would have belonged to him, whereas a “Suárez government [would be] the King’s government because…Suárez lacked any political project” of his own, Cercas argues. But after a few years of reformist success, and amid burgeoning inroads with the left, Suárez’s newly fashioned image as liberal reformer possibly went to his head. Here Cercas the novelist is in full flower. “Like Bardone,” he narrates, Suárez “soon began to steep himself in the political and moral cause of the democratic parties; like Bardone, he deceived [the old guard] with such sincerity that not even he knew he was deceiving.”

Cercas has no pretension to being entirely rigorous here, or terribly original. (The Rossellini comparison, after all, is not his.) In this respect, translator Anne McLean has done an excellent job of handling a varied set of texts written by people other than Cercas, and of smoothly integrating them into the narrative fabric. The strength of these moments is in their composite explanatory power; Cercas is uniting, under a single narrative roof, a slew of references, texts and allusions that together invite interpretation in a way that the individual details, standing alone, could not. The approach is well suited to the oddity of the coup Cercas has set out to describe. He has to contend not merely with the fact that the story of the coup has been told before but that its telling, or forecasting, was actually part of the drama.

By the day of the uprising, both the general idea and concrete particulars of the coup had already been spoken about at length in the press and political circles. In a section called “The placenta of the coup,” Cercas details the months of collective antigovernment hysteria fueled by the military and right-wing tabloids and abetted by neophyte politicians who entered the fray to overtake Suárez, their rival. For months, talk about a coup had gone from daily euphemism and innuendo to outright provocation, all in a steady crescendo sounded by the socialists, the military and members of Suárez’s own party. By July 1980 talk of “a touch on the rudder” or “a new caretaker government,” peppered with direct calls for Suárez’s ouster, was so central to the discourse that even the prime minister told the press he knew a plot was afoot to replace him with a military man. That November, a government report called Panoramica de las operaciones en marcha described with near exactitude the form the February coup would take.

And yet, when Tejero strides into the Cortes, he seems to catch everyone by surprise. Had the political class really been so naïve as to overlook what was incubating in its midst? Understandably, conspiracy theories abound—about the king’s role (why his seven-hour delay in denouncing the coup?), about possible collusion by the intelligence services (had it simply botched its job, or were there darker purposes?). Under the circumstances, neither conjecture seems farfetched, though Cercas persuasively discredits both. His ultimate characterization captures the historical mood well. Politicians, including to a certain extent the king, had misunderstood a fundamental feature of democratic style, which was still new to them at the time. Criticism of Suárez was “legitimate and sensible…but politics is a matter of form—especially the politics” of a “fragile democracy in transition.” In its zeal to overcome Suárez, and with its newfound freedom of criticism, the political class, led by the socialists, had committed a grave mistake; it had let things get out of hand, and by then, extreme elements on the right—embodied by Tejero, Milans del Bosch and Armada—could not be corralled.

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Cercas’s pages on the golpistas offer a vivid psychological portrait of a political breed in decline. There may be a certain empathy behind this—though the lines of identification are not ideological. Cercas tells us that he wrote Anatomy only after a failure of his own, reminiscent in some way of the muddled events of 23-F. He had initially tried to write a novel about 23-F, to overthrow and rewrite reality. Only, he couldn’t. Overpowered by its ungovernable particularity, he abandoned the project and wrote this book of nonfiction instead, which he dubs the “humble testimony of a failure.”

Cercas opens most of his novels with this sort of disclaimer. His two best-known to date—Soldiers of Salamis and The Speed of Light (2005)—begin with a narrator-writer announcing a defeat. Either his “career as a writer never actually got started” or he was a floundering writer who “barely got by.” At times this self-deprecation has the makings of a stylistic tic, although at others it seems a deliberately replenishable joke. At one moment in Speed of Light, the protagonist stops himself in a hotel while chasing after the subject of his story because he thinks he’s seen something important. “I fleetingly thought I recognized someone; surprised, I backtracked, but the only thing I saw was my face reflected in a large wall mirror.” Cercas’s narrators are forever telling us how they constructed the text we are reading, which tends to convert their stories into a hall of mirrors where authorial cameos are the norm. In Soldiers, the narrator (named Javier Cercas) is a failed novelist making his way as a middling cultural journalist. Into his lap falls the story of the Falangist writer Rafael Sanchez Mazas, who had been captured by the Republican forces in retreat in 1939 and put before a firing squad. Piecing together the “true tale” of his escape—and that of the Republican soldiers who found him, could have turned him in, but did not—is the substance of the novel. In Speed of Light, an aspiring writer in Cercas’s image comes to Illinois to teach at the state university, where he meets a Vietnam War veteran whose story he goes on to tell.

Cercas tugs at the seams of his novels at his own peril. Soldiers duly earned him an international reputation as a serious novelist. Speed of Light, by contrast, is pallid and unconvincing. What is intended as subtle chiaroscuro is in fact just the characters being glimpsed at a remove, in the shadow of a narrator who shines the light mostly on himself. Overt personalizing isn’t quite the driving force of his earlier novellas, but a certain meta-literariness is, and the two are related. The Tenant (1989) is the tale of a hapless Italian academic convinced that another, more prominent and successful professor has moved in next door, and is gradually evicting him from his own life. The last page makes clear that all this anxiety is an elaborate projection. In The Motive (1987), a brooding young novelist-to-be is determined to make life happen according to the plot of the book he’s writing. These novellas reveal a young Cercas with some familiar fixations: nested stories, unreliable (or disclaiming) narrators, that oft-played theme of life and fiction blurring together. The fact that the able Anne McLean (and not a panoply of different translators) has rendered all of what we know of Cercas into English doubtless helps draw out these continuities.

The old refrain about two irreconcilable Spains (one of the right, the other of the left) is also, in a way, apropos of Cercas. There are two Javier Cercases: the one who writes novels like The Tenant, The Motive and The Speed of Light, and the one who writes about Spain. The two cannot always be squared, the books on Spain being significantly better than the rest, even if the mechanism for revealing character is virtually the same. Cercas’s is an art of the personal, in which he pictures himself and his reality as author in the tableaus of his stories. Something about Spanish cultural reality—infamous for shunning the historical mirror—invites, even demands, this primacy of the personal. A Cercas appearance in his books on the civil war or the Transition is almost metonymic for the present bearing certain witness to the past.

In Soldiers and certain parts of Anatomy, the personal is something of a Trojan horse. It smuggles a more searching perspective into the books through the unthreatening hulk of self-referentiality. Cercas concludes Anatomy, for instance, by recalling the arguments he used to have with his father about Suárez. Cercas, who was 18 at the time of 23-F, admits to feeling a certain shame for his father, who was wealthy, conservative, credulous and an unflinching Suárez supporter. This is the shame of a son who sees his father in his country’s image. In Soldiers of Salamis Cercas’s insistence on standing within the frame of his own story actually makes the story possible and guarantees its originality. He is treading on extremely precarious and notoriously uneven cultural ground, and the fumbling self-deprecations of the narrator (disarmed, as it were, by wearing Cercas’s name) are a vehicle for staging and probing the ambiguities of cultural memory of the civil war. The book’s inconclusiveness becomes a kind of invitation to frank and open-ended national self-discovery.

Discovery in the sense of excavating the past has been somewhat double-edged in post-Transition Spain. In a certain way, new disclosures about the crimes of the Franco era reify old prejudices and cement old postures. The corpses of partisans from the civil war found among the country’s unmarked graves now number in the thousands; recent reports in El País have confirmed that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of infants were systematically taken from families of Republicans or other leftists in the immediate aftermath of the war. But for the most part, even after passage of a historical-memory law in 2007, exhumations and investigations have been the result of independent initiative and only reluctant government action, and news commentary on them is often short-lived because the two major parties barely clash on the issue. The right-wing Partido Popular is consumed with past grudges, and the socialists have wearied of trying to engage the PP; besides, a faltering, post-bubble economy is testing the socialists’ governing majority in other ways. The legacy of the Transition is a stalemate; Spaniards might well say that the “Transition kept us warm,” with its refrain of cooperation moving forward, its air of dignified civility and consummate discretion.

Cercas has shown a certain boldness in wanting to restore mystery and ambiguity to accounts of 23-F, and perhaps to the figures of the Transition as a whole. But The Anatomy of a Moment reveals that he too is a Spaniard of the stalemate. If Cercas refreshes the meaning of 23-F, he has done so by identifying heroes other than the king. Juan Carlos was the most prominent hero of the day—a literal savior of democracy—yet as the heir to Franco and the steward of Spanish democracy he was, and remains, a most dubious embodiment of reconciliation. The two Spains at endless cross-purposes are kept in their respective orbits by the king’s gravity. As long as Juan Carlos occupies the throne, uneasy questions about the past will be pushed aside.

Cercas’s emphasis on Suárez, while fascinating and a worthy read, telegraphs a certain position: his story is resolved on a note of nostalgia rather than provocation. The book’s reception has confirmed the popularity of such an approach. It has earned mostly unqualified praise from critics in Spain, and was awarded the 2010 National Narrative Prize, which is puzzling because the award is generally reserved for novels, not works of nonfiction (whatever their gestures toward genre fusion). Some of its historical figures, like Santiago Carrillo (who has recently published a book about national reconciliation), have aired gripes about Cercas’s account. This dissatisfaction, though, was inevitable, and has a flavor that is more political than historical.

In the Spanish-language market, The Anatomy of a Moment is considered an ensayo, or essay. As such, it works especially well because there is only a vague indication, floated in scattered pages, of it being some kind of genre experiment. Although it is faint, Anatomy’s meta-commentary is excessive and could have been improved by a serious edit. Cercas’s need in the opening chapter to talk about the novel he tried to write about 23-F but couldn’t, only to end the book by calling it a novel (apparently because parts of it are whimsically investigative and playful), is distracting, and telling. This is a book about Cercas writing a book about Spain, when the book about Spain would have done just fine, or even rather well. For the time being, however, personalizing the historical, an act of transparent narrative transubstantiation, seems the only viable (or at least the preferred) approach for Cercas. Which is ironic, actually, because Cercas is most himself in Anatomy—that is, at the height of his formidable narrative powers—when he stops presenting himself in duplicate.