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Pavía arrives early - Bela Lugosi's Dead, Jim
May 9th, 2015
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Pavía arrives early

The Anatomy of a Moment, Javier Cercas, 978-1-4088-2210-4

Some time ago I read The Battle for Spain by Anthony Beevor, an account of the Spanish civil war leading to the triumph of Franco. I don’t think I wrote a review but I did post a choice quote.The eventual sequel to that conflict was the Spanish transition to democracy after Franco’s death. I was vaguely aware that he’d been succeeded by Juan Carlos as King of Spain, who had reintroduced democracy, and that there’s been a failed military coup attempt that the King had had some hand in putting down.

Of course, it was a lot more complicated than that.

So firstly, for me Javier Circas’s book shed some light upon the events, their background, and the personalities involved. By the time of the coup the Spanish democracy had been underway for long enough that the King’s original choice of Prime Minister, Adolfo Suaréz, had spent all his political capital and more. The economy was in trouble; ETA terrorism was out of control; the communists were legal again; social reform was underway; it was now obvious that Suaréz had not just reformed Francoism but totally abolished it (which was why he’d been appointed). Many of the country’s problems hurt everybody but the conservative establishment felt particularly aggrieved (and with ETA’s campaign principally impacting the security forces, this wasn’t entirely sour grapes).

Talk of a coup, “a hand on the rudder,” was in the air from all sides, even from people who ought to have known better. Everyone wanted Suaréz gone, but the golpistas wanted a change of direction too. In the event they got what the former without a coup - Suaréz resigned - but they did not get the latter and that is why his resignation did not prevent the coup: and so as the deputies in the Cortes voted on his replacement they were interrupted by an armed incursion. You can watch it on Youtube.

Circas analyzes who was behind the coup. The key figure is General Armada (and for an English reader it’s hard to imagine a better name for Spanish villain), who wanted to put himself in charge but nevertheless maintain constitutional appearances by winning a vote in the Cortes, presenting himself as a compromise. This was ultimately revealed to be a fantasy by the subsequent King’s broadcast against the coup, though as Circas points out, had he been more successful the broadcast may have been re-interpreted as a condemnation of the initial violent incursion rather than the entire project of the coup.

The brains of the operation is also the most mysterious and most colorfully described character, intelligence officer José Luis Cortina, described as a “twelve-faced character” and, even more remarkably, a Marxist-Falangist. Cercas is sure that he supported the coup at its inception, but equally sure that he opposed once the writing was on the wall. (Ultimately he escaped conviction.)

The man on the ground was Lieutenant Colonel Tejero, who took over the Cortes. Between him and Armada was a dangerous difference in expectations: Tejero’s goal was the re-introduction of military rule. He was supposed to seize the Cortes peacefully - but in the event sent bullets flying, which in Cercas’s analysis gave what had been intended as a “soft coup” the unavoidable appearance of a “hard coup”, one of the first things that went wrong.

This is the moment that Cercas relentlessly anatomizes. When the guns open up, most of the deputies in the Cortes dives to the floor. But Suárez sits impassive, along with Santiago Carrillo (the communist leader, compromising from left to establish Spanish democracy) and Suárez’s deputy General Gutiérrez Mellado (compromising from inside the army, to the same ends), before turning to protest. This refusal to submit to the attack is revisited again and again through the book and analyzed from every angle.

Ultimately Armada’s attempts to constitutionalize the coup by invoking the monarch are frustrated by the King himself: the King refuses to talk to him and ultimately broadcasts on the television against the coup. Armada’s only remaining avenue is to attempt to be the hero by negotiating with Tejero - but this founders on the differences in the two men’s goals and on Tejero’s unwillingness to sacrifice himself to Armada’s soft coup.

Of course, it was a lot more complicated than that.

If you want to know more than I can recommend reading the book. It’s a colorful and entertaining account of a critical moment in Spanish history, written in a style quite unlike any work of history that I can bring to mind, endlessly questioning itself and second-guessing itself and third-guessing itself, and the actors, and the evidence, and the events, within every other sentence. The author has brought a novelist's sensibility to a work of historical analysis and this shines through in Anne McLean’s translation.

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