Many Spaniards today remember exactly where they were at 6.23 on the evening of 23 February 1981, when they saw, live on television, mutinous soldiers led by a colonel in a tricorn hat burst into the parliamentary chamber, firing pistols and submachine guns to announce the imminent arrival of a ‘competent military authority’ to take over from the faltering civilian government whose elected representatives, with three exceptions, dived under the benches for cover. Many also remember that millions of Spanish citizens rushed onto the streets to defend their fledgling democracy, in a show of democratic fervour which, with King Juan Carlos taking to the airwaves to denounce the golpe de estado, dealt a deathblow to the coup and clinched Spain’s transition from fascist backwardness to democratic modernity.
This version of ‘23-F’ often passes for the truth in Spain and tends to be recited on television on that date every year. But it is largely fictional, a congeries of half-truths, wishful revisionism and spurious folklore. In fact, the closed-circuit footage of the coup attempt was not broadcast until the following day, once the plot had already sputtered out for reasons that had nothing to do with any uprising by the Spanish people. These memories are simply part of the general embellishing, or novelería in the more evocative Spanish term, of the events of 23-F, and it is this ‘collective novel’ as much as the failed coup itself that is the subject of Javier Cercas’s scrupulously documented and artfully constructed historical essay.
The coup attempt did not come as a surprise. Nearly six years after the death of Franco, the euphoria of liberalisation had given way to social chaos, separatist violence and political torpor. With the economy in free-fall, unemployment soaring and violence between the Spanish state and Basque militants escalating (108 Spaniards were killed in 1980), discontent with the civilian government was rife, especially in the armed forces. The Falangist newspaper El Alcázar editorialised about the need for a coup to restore order. (As Cercas points out, the golpe de estado has been a ‘vernacular rite’ in Spain, with more than 50 having occurred over the past two centuries.) Nor was talk of the need for an extra-constitutional ‘touch on the rudder’ limited to the fascist margins (which were not, in fact, margins). The king had made dangerously ambiguous remarks about the civilian government that were interpreted by disgruntled officers as encouraging a military ‘adjustment’. Even the Socialists, poised to win a near absolute majority in the next election, talked about the therapeutic potential of a ‘surgical’ coup to stabilise the country, with some Communists and trade unionists chiming in.
The nation’s discontent was focused on the prime minister, the young Segovian Adolfo Suárez. He had been a surprise appointment as interim prime minister in 1976 and drew criticism from both the left and the centre for his Francoist background. (‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ one fascist dinosaur said to another in a cartoon of the time: ‘He’s called Adolfo.’) But this seeming provincial nobody had confounded his enemies by smoothly and swiftly dismantling vast tracts of the Francoist state and liberalising the political system, all under the old guard’s noses, a theoretically impossible feat accomplished with the utmost grace. In 1977, Suárez held (and won) the first free national elections in four decades, got an amnesty passed absolving both left and right from their wartime and postwar actions, and, most daringly, legalised the Communist Party, still viewed as satanic by many in the armed forces.
But by the summer of 1980, Suárez’s magic had run out, with his former backers undermining his every attempt at stabilisation. He had been deserted by the people, the Parliament, his own party, the Church, Washington and finally the king, leaving him exhausted and isolated and Madrid seething with plots. Two years before, a lieutenant colonel called Antonio Tejero had launched an abortive coup and been sentenced to seven months in prison, during which he began planning another attempt.
Suárez, as Cercas lovingly describes him, was an ‘ascetic of power’ who lived for politics, so the country was flabbergasted when, on 29 January 1981, he announced his resignation, a tactical retreat, Cercas suggests, the better to make his political comeback. The resignation did nothing to deter the golpistas, who by then were far too wrapped up in their role as national messiah to care that the main reason for their rescue mission had removed himself. It was just as the lower house was ratifying Suárez’s disinvestiture as head of state that they stormed the Cortes.
The gunfire at once shattered any illusion that this was a quasi-consensual ‘soft coup’, as parliamentarians, administrative staff and journalists took cover. Tejero led the coup himself, barking orders in a strong Andalusian accent, like some villainous guardia civil from a Lorca ballad. There was no resistance and there were no casualties as the golpistas effortlessly secured the Cortes. If, as is said, the first ten minutes of a coup determine its outcome, this one was heading for success.
And yet less than 18 hours later, all the golpistas were in custody. What happened? It certainly wasn’t anything to do with mass mobilisation. Cercas himself rushed to his university campus to protest against the putsch only to find a sparse gathering already glumly dispersing. On the freezing night of 23-F there were no crowds of trade unionists, no raging students, and Madrid’s streets were silent except for a few roving bands of pumped-up fachas, or fascist sympathisers.
A first reason the plot failed was that it met with instant and unexpected opposition from the young king, who ignored a trusted adviser (and leading plotter) who had presented it to him as a fait accompli. Juan Carlos went first on radio, then on television, and in both cases his words condemning the coup and assuring the continuance of constitutional government were replayed all night long. This has not stopped many conspiracy buffs (whose output is voluminous) from trying to implicate the king in the coup, suggesting that he was the ‘competent military authority’ whose advent the golpistas had announced in the gunsmoke-filled Cortes. But Cercas, like most investigators, rejects this speculation. To be sure, Juan Carlos’s defence of civilian government was motivated by the example of his brother-in-law Constantine of Greece, who after smiling on the colonels’ putsch of 1967 was booted into exile by the civilian government that returned in 1973. But even if Juan Carlos’s resolve was partly inspired by self-interest, at least he had enough sense to see that his own fate depended on a civilian government.
If the king’s opposition undermined the rebellion, what snuffed it out was the inertia of the military elite. Each of the country’s 11 military governors wielded vice-regal powers in their territories and all were Francoist veterans. Cercas suggests that most of them had foreknowledge of the coup, to which they had given plausibly deniable assent. Even if they hadn’t enthusiastically signed up to it, they hadn’t reported it to the authorities. Yet on the night of 23-F only the military commander of Valencia moved into the streets with tanks and soldiers as promised, while the rest, on a variety of lame pretexts, stayed in their barracks. The governors were apparently not keen on risking another civil war and joined the great majority of the nation in sitting on their hands, waiting to see what would happen next.
And what happened next was nothing at all. After sunrise on the 24th, the coup steadily ran out of steam and in the late morning the last of the bemused golpistas filed out of the Cortes into police custody. Three days later, in a delayed reaction, a million Spaniards did take to the streets in the icy rain in support of parliamentary democracy. The long spell of democratic disenchantment was broken and Spain’s transition from a Falangist dictatorship to a constitutional monarchy was guaranteed.
The coup of 23-F figures large in the Spanish national consciousness, but it is little known elsewhere. This final outburst of bona fide fascism may seem startling without being significant, but even a semi-successful coup could have done grave damage to the new democracy. As Cercas repeats throughout the book like a mournful refrain, ‘it is a universal rule that once you bring soldiers out of their barracks it’s not easy to get them back in.’ It’s easy to forget how fragile the liberal democracies of Southern Europe seemed in the late 1970s, with even Italy’s Communists anxious that any sudden upturn in their electoral strength might trigger a Chile-style reaction. The United States was as ever poised to support any measure, legal or not, that would keep Communist Parties out of government. (The arch-conservative American ambassador to Spain, Terence Todman, had been tipped off about 23-F and given it his warm regards.)
Whatever 23-F’s significance, this book wouldn’t have been translated into English had it not been written by Cercas, whose recent novels – which incorporate large amounts of non-fiction – have sold millions of copies. His great theme is the dialectic between winners and losers, glory and ignominy, and his insistence that fame and success can count for less than failure explains why he is better known in Catholic than in Protestant countries and will never be much read in the United States. Cercas began this book intending it to be a novel but realised once he’d started that the event itself already had the form of a fiction, thanks to the unreality of the much-shown video of the storming of the Cortes. In the event he focuses on the three men who refused to take cover when the conspirators shot their way in, extracting every last shade of meaning from their gesture.
The first hero of 23-F was General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, the deputy prime minister and the only soldier among the parliamentarians. He was no stranger to fascist coups: as a 24-year-old unit commander in 1936 he had rallied his troops to join the rebellion against the elected government, and was captured early on by the Republicans. Later, as a victorious fascist, he was party to the execution of 50,000 Spaniards, a massacre that Spain has still not fully admitted to itself. By the late 1970s, however, Gutiérrez Mellado was a committed democrat, surely conscious that, as Cercas writes, ‘the political system he was helping to construct was not essentially different from the one he’d helped to destroy half a century before.’ When Tejero and his men shot their way into the chamber, Gutiérrez Mellado instantly got up from his chair and commanded them to desist; he was very quickly surrounded by armed men shouting abuse at him, while Tejero twice tried to throw him to the ground. Tejero lost interest, and Gutiérrez Mellado, at the behest of the prime minister, stomped back to his bench, after an act of resistance that was also, perhaps, ‘an extreme gesture of contrition by a former golpista’.
Cercas makes the point that ‘history … does not disdain the symmetries of fiction, as if it wanted to endow itself with meaning that on its own it did not possess,’ and the second politician who stayed seated, Santiago Carrillo, is a perfect counterpart to Gutiérrez Mellado. This was not the first fascist coup attempt that Carrillo, the head of the Partido Comunista de España, had resisted; decades earlier, at the age of 21, he had been appointed security chief of Madrid, and had taken a leading role in the defence of the capital against Franco’s rebels. He was formally in command of the prisons from which Republican forces, on 6 November 1936, embarked on the summary execution of 2000 Francoist prisoners at the Paracuellos del Jarama jail. (Gutiérrez Mellado was a prisoner there at the time and only narrowly escaped execution.) As at once the gallant defender of Madrid and the butcher of Paracuellos, Carrillo was a polarising figure: a legendary patriot to some, to others, an embodiment of a demonic anti-patriot.
Carrillo’s role in his own party was no less vexed: since his return from exile in 1976, he had manoeuvred ceaselessly to rid the PCE of both its Stalinist residue and its revolutionary aspirations. He forced it to sign up to the amnesty law, a bitter pill given how much its members had suffered under Franco, persuading them this was the price they had to pay for assuming their rightful place as Spain’s leading leftist party. Instead, the PCE peaked at 9 per cent of the vote in 1977, then imploded. Carrillo – like Suárez, a ‘pure politician’ devoted to power – wound up hanging on to a splinter of the Party and long after the coup would share with Suárez the parliamentary bench reserved for the tiniest parties. The two men understood each other.
The third man who refused to take cover, and perhaps the most surprising, was Suárez himself. Throughout the storming, the prime minister remained coolly sitting on his blue parliamentary bench. He is the richest, most complex character in Cercas’s story, the embodiment of many of Francoist Spain’s internal conflicts. For a start, Suárez was the son of Republicans, and several members of his family had done time in the long repression that followed the fascist victory. He didn’t come from a family with connections or money, but rose through the system thanks to his charm and the preternatural political skills that would later allow him to demolish so much of the fascist order right under the initially benign, then angry gaze of its old guard.
As a character he lends himself nicely to novelería. We see him as a failed lawyer and picaresque hustler, carrying suitcases for tips at railway stations, and as a rising and ambitious provincial in the metropolis ‘like Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, like Balzac’s Lucien Rubempré, like Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau’. But Cercas has not romanticised the man, or even sanitised him. He cheerfully brings out his failings at every opportunity. Cercas once loathed the upstart PM: ‘I never considered him anything other than a Francoist on the make who had prospered through back-breaking bowing, an opportunistic, reactionary, pious, superficial and smooth politician who embodied what I most detested about my country.’ Yet the more abuse Cercas heaps on his hero, the more remarkable Suárez’s gesture of defiance appears, an action not just brave but redemptive, and not only of himself but of the entire nation. After all, Spaniards, according to Cercas, had voted for Suárez because he reminded them of themselves; he was just like them, and ‘less in his virtues than in his defects’.
That’s more or less what Spain in the 1970s was like: a country full of vulgar, uncultivated, swindling, womanising, gambling men without many scruples, provincials with the morality of survivors brought up between Acción Católica and the Falange who had lived comfortably under Francoism, collaborators who wouldn’t even have admitted their collaboration but were secretly increasingly ashamed of it and trusted Suárez because they knew that, although he might have wanted to be the fairest and the most modern and most audacious – or precisely because he wanted to be – he would always be one of theirs and would never take them where they didn’t want to go.
Cercas doesn’t go in for glossy eloquence but rather favours a disarming plainspokenness that just manages to avoid cliché: an effective anti-style. His Spanish tends to the vernacular, though some of its colloquial vitality has been leached out by Anne McLean’s slightly ponderous translation. Her preference for Latinate polysyllables sometimes loads the text with a sententious ballast absent in the original, but that hardly spoils the fun. Cercas’s prose is content to be prose, and it survives translation very well. The tone is appropriate, for Cercas’s is the story of the definitive victory of the prosaic over the epic-poetic in Spanish politics, the story of flawed and grubby politicians representing a flawed and grubby population somehow triumphing over national saviours with glorious visions, funny hats and submachine guns. The Anatomy of a Moment is an act of homage to a politician whose readiness to wheel and deal, as Cercas sees it, has been too little appreciated.
A declared opponent of ideology and absolute values, Cercas is speaking in large part to the past, which remains a live issue in Spain, where a delayed and often bitter Historikerstreit over the Civil War broke out 15 years ago and has not gone quiet. The delay is easily explained: during the first two decades of democracy there was a widely acknowledged ‘pact of forgetting’, the better to guarantee a peaceful transition. But, as Cercas points out, there never was any forgetting, just an agreement to grit one’s teeth and stay silent, a price well worth paying to avoid another civil war. Once democracy was securely enough installed for a post-Francoist centre-right party to take power in 1996, this agreement lapsed. History was unearthed all over again, quite literally, as the graves of war victims, many civilian and mostly Republican, were dug up by forensic anthropologists. Vociferous debates have since filled the media, and a resurgent right wing has blamed the whole conflict on the left.
In this context, Cercas’s book offers a conciliatory liberal compromise, a celebration of three emblematic Spaniards and their heroic moment. Cercas is not especially harsh in denouncing the leading golpistas; he doesn’t need to be: they are little loved in Spain. Today, Tejero is a stock comic figure with a bushy moustache who has been rendered harmless by three decades of parody – in large part, Cercas argues, as a guilty reaction on the part of a population that did so little to resist the coup attempt.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.