SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Anatomy of a Moment (Anatomía de un instante)’ by Javier Cercas

In February 1981, just as Spain was finally leaving Francos’ dictatorship and during the first democratic vote in parliament for a new prime minister – Colonel Tejero and a band of right-wing soldiers burst into the Spanish parliament and began firing shots. Only three members of Congress defied the incursion and did not dive for cover,: Adolfo Suarez the then outgoing prime minister, who had steered the country away from the Franco era, Guttierez Mellado, a conservative general who had loyally served democracy, and Santiago Carillo, the head of the Communist Party, which had just been legalised.

In The Anatomy of a Moment, Cercas examines a key moment in Spanish history, just as he did so successfully in his Spanish Civil War novel, Soldiers of Salamis. This is the only coup ever to have been caught on film as it was happening, which, as Cercas says, ‘guaranteed both its reality and its unreality’. Every February a few seconds of the video are shown again and Spaniards congratulate themselves for standing up for democracy, but Cercas says that things were very quiet that afternoon and evening while all over Spain people stayed inside waiting for the coup to be defeated …. or to triumph.

Cover and blurb via Amazon


Anatomy starts off with a prologue, explaining how the author set out to write a novel regarding the 23 February 1981 coup attempt on the Spanish government. But with events of the time already muddy in people’s memories, instead Cercas set out to instead write a book designed to set straight the events of the fateful day. What started as a novel set in the time period became an expertly studied piece of non-fiction, complete with photos, capable of explaining what really happened in 1981.

The ‘moment’ of the book is when Lieutenant Colonel Tejero and his huge moustache storm the Cortes (parliament) while full of MPs on February 23, 1981. While the Guardia Civil start shooting warning shots, three men –  Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo and Deputy Prime Minister General Gutiérrez Mellado, refuse to bow down to the Colonel.

Anatomy tells the story of these three men, who become the main characters. Prime Minister Suárez comes into view, chosen by King Juan Carlos to lead after Franco’s death in 1975. In his years as Prime Minister, Suárez turned Spain into a democracy, with elections held, army rebellions quashed and heeding all political parties across the divide to come together for the sake of Spain and its new democracy. However, with Suárez failing at leading Spain in these early years, and the ever-increasing threats from ETA, the time has come where people question Suárez’s leadership.

Every book needs a villain and Anatomy gets three – Tejero, ready to bend reality to favour himself, plus soldiers General Milans del Bosch and General Armada, who each in their own way think they have a chance at succeeding in the coup. They wanted to take Spain back to its Francoist state, military rule, Catholic suffocation, and total power.

Anatomy tells of success and failure; the coup failed and democracy continued, but on a  cold night the coup had one success; it showed the shaky new start for Spain could hold its own. The nation sat in the cold and waited for news, a night where their fates could have been different. The book delves into the background and motivation of each of the main characters, something which could come up for debate, depending on a reader’s opinion. The book does give a real picture of what happened in 1981, when legends and stories float around all too easily. The translation isn’t perfect (they never are) and that leaves some very long sentences for readers to swallow, but the book is enthralling on the subject matter. The book has more accolades and awards than you can poke a stick at, and definitely worth a reader’s time. If you love Spain, if you live in Spain, you need to know what happened on the night of February 23.

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