Heroes of Retreat

Javier Cercas. The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-Five Minutes in History and Imagination. (Trans. Anne McLean.) Bloomsbury, 2011.

Some books purport to be about one thing (al Qaeda, salt) and then are actually about that thing (al Qaeda, salt); others purport to be about one thing (horses, photography, cocaine) and are rather about a different thing (tradition, decency, experiment). The best books purport to be about one thing and are about all other things, about tradition and decency and experiment. The Anatomy of a Moment, by the Spanish novelist Javier Cercas, falls into this last category. It purports to be about one thing—a single moment at the beginning of a miscarried coup d’etat, or golpe de estado, staged as a hostage-taking at the Cortes, the Spanish legislative assembly, in February 1981, that was broadcast live on the radio and later shown on television—but is secretly and not so secretly about so many things it verges on the inexhaustible.

The moment in question began with a simple gesture of defiance on the part of a politically finished and personally broken man, outgoing prime minister Adolfo Suárez, who remained in his seat in the Cortes as everyone else, or almost everyone else, cowered under the benches. The book spirals up and out and back from this gesture, a single gesture of defiance that illuminates the thirty-five recorded minutes of an assault on a fledgling regime, thirty-five minutes of an assault that illuminate seventeen and a half hours of a near-successful coup against an upstart and unlikely democracy, seventeen and a half hours of a near-successful coup that illuminate the political situation in Spain in the apocalyptic late autumn of 1980, a political situation in Spain in the apocalyptic late autumn of 1980 that illuminates the history of Spain’s hasty and improvised and successful transition from Francoism to democracy, an improvised transition from Francoism to democracy that illuminates the legacies of authoritarianism and the challenges of its dismantling, legacies of authoritarianism and its dismantling that illuminate the responsibilities of citizens and the performances of their leaders, the peculiarities of heroism, the vice of politics, the ingratitude of democracy, the courage of bourgeois decency, and the final irrelevance of motive.


In January 1981, Adolfo Suárez was forced to resign after five years as prime minister of Spain: an initial interim as King Juan Carlos I’s appointee, a short term as the popularly legitimate victor of Spain’s first free elections in four decades, and finally two full years as the constitutionally legitimate leader of a new parliamentary monarchy. He had managed the transition to democracy with an alacrity and decisiveness no one had anticipated from a Francoist lackey, the last secretary-general of the dictatorship’s lone legal political party, the Movimiento. Cercas describes Suárez, in one of the book’s mesmeric, murmured leitmotifs, as a politician who was able to do “the hard thing,” take apart the authoritarian apparatus, and subsequently unable to do the easy thing, administer the new democracy. He was singularly able to dismantle Francoism because it was the system that created him, because he knew all the “nooks and crannies of the corridors of power”; the very fact that he had forever been a perfectly obedient creature of a dictatorship both allowed him to take Francoism apart and prevented him from keeping democracy together.

At the end of these five years he was politically finished. He was despised by the Francoist right for statutes that allowed for decentralization and greater regional autonomy and seemed to undermine the glory of the state; by business interests for his inability to manage the worsening economic crisis; by Rome for his facilitation of marriage reform; by Washington for his refusal to join NATO; by the army for his legalization of the Communist Party and his inability to stanch ETA terrorism; by journalists for shutting them out of the power they’d arrogated to themselves in the late cronyist scuffles of a moribund Francoism; and by the political class—an “immature, reckless, and bewildered ruling class,” Cercas calls it—for having begun as a provincial upstart and finished as a secluded, indecisive leader.

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