October 2011

Christopher Merkel


A Coup, in Fact and Fiction

"History fabricates strange figures, frequently resigns itself to sentimentalism and does not disdain the symmetries of fiction, as if it wanted to endow itself with meaning that on its own it did not possess." That is the sentence that author Javier Cercas uses to preface his explanation of the strange relationship between Adolfo Suárez, the (ostensibly) Francoist Prime Minister of Spain from 1976 to 1981, and Santiago Carrillo, the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Spain whom Suárez allowed to repatriate after years in exile come the advent of the new Spanish democracy that emerged after the death of Francisco Franco. "Who could have predicted that the change from dictatorship to democracy in Spain would not be plotted by the democratic parties," Cercas goes on to explain, "but by the Falangists and the Communists, irreconcilable enemies of democracy and each other's irreconcilable enemies during three years of war and forty post-war years?"

And Cercas does his best -- and does impressively well for the gargantuan task that it is -- to reconcile the seemingly incongruous face of the historical record with the perfect geometry that it seemed to possess as a story, a detective novel of sorts for which it was necessary, preordained even, that certain pieces come around to fall in place with each other in the end. In fact, that first sentence is the perfect encapsulation of Cercas's project in The Anatomy of a Moment, his book about the attempted coup d'état that took place in Spain on February 23, 1981, on which date, at twenty-three minutes after six in the evening, a group of right wing soldiers stormed the Spanish Parliament as it was in the process of an investiture vote for a new prime minister following Suárez's resignation earlier in the year. 

In addition to Adolfo Suárez and Santiago Carrillo, only one other person present at the vote that evening, General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, Deputy Prime Minister of the acting government, held his ground and refused to follow the tremendous majority of his colleagues under the benches of the lower house of the Cortes when the group of Civil Guards led by Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero burst into the chamber and started firing their automatic weapons. The reactions of Suárez, Gutiérrez Mellado and Carrillo to the interruption of the investiture vote by Tejero and his men, and the import of the particular gestures they made when the Civil Guards opened fire on the chamber are the core of Cercas's narrative; and through his analysis of those reactions and the gestures that they inspired, Cercas attempts to trace the origins of that February 23 and to generate what is, indeed, an anatomy of the coup. 

And the story that Cercas tells is true. Or, at least for as much as he admits in his prologue, which he has titled "Epilogue to a Novel," Anatomy of a Moment was the result of his having given up his attempts to turn the events surrounding the coup into a fiction. "For once reality mattered more to me than fiction or mattered to me too much to want to reinvent it... because none of what I could imagine about 23 February... could be as complex and persuasive as the pure reality of 23 February." 

So The Anatomy of a Moment is a history of sorts, but it doesn't at all aspire to be a definitive one. Also from the prologue: "although it's not a history book and no one should kid themselves and search it for hitherto unknown facts or relevant contributions to the knowledge of our recent past, it will not entirely renounce being read as a history book." But then again: "nor will it renounce answering to itself as well as answering to reality, and from there, although it's not a novel, it won't entirely renounce being read as a novel." And from there proceeds the body of the book, throughout which Cercas stays committed to his mission, which is to say that he uses the fact of historical paradox to cement the edifice of his own acknowledged contradiction, his desire to write, not a fiction based on history, but a novel of historical nonfiction. 

Good thing for Cercas, the biographies of Suárez, Gutiérrez Mellado and Carrillo are replete with historical ironies. Or they appear that way to Cercas, anyway, who isn't at all abashed of illuminating the details of those biographies by way of supposition. "It could have been then and there, as I say, but it also might not have been: after all reality lacks the slightest decorative inclination." And at one point he supposes of Suárez that he, "resigned as Prime Minister of the government to give himself legitimacy as Prime Minister of the government," reasoning that Suárez's resignation was ultimately the paradoxical result of his desire to assert his moral authority over the very position he was abdicating when he found himself faced with accusations that he had come to power as nothing but a sycophantic appointee. And when that didn't work, he made another, final attempt: 

[W]hen, sitting on his bench while the bullets whizzed around him in the Cortes chamber and words were no longer enough and he had to demonstrate with actions what he was and what he wanted, he told the political class and the whole country that, though he might have the dirtiest democratic pedigree in the great sewer of Madrid and had been a little provincial Falangist and Francoist upstart and an uneducated nonentity, he was indeed ready to risk his neck for democracy. 

As was already mentioned, the paradox by which Suárez and Carrillo came to share power was at the very of the establishment of post-Franco democracy. But the irony by which Carrillo and Gutiérrez Mellado end up being cordoned in the same room for fifteen hours of silence between when they were removed from the Cortes chamber and when the efforts of the countercoup succeeded in freeing them is even more poignant. 

At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Carrillo had broken with the more moderate socialist ideology with which he had been raised and joined the Communist Party. After the Republican government had fled Madrid for Valencia, he became Security Chief of the Office of Public Order in the new government of the city, which had been charged with the city's defense. As Franco's army laid siege to the capital, its defenders feared that if fighting reached the prisons where the fascists and the military officers who had refused offers to join the Republican Army were being kept that those prisoners would escape to swell the ranks of the rebellion. 

An improvised and restricted meeting was held in order to address that emerging problem during which it was decided by the anarchists and the Communists that the most dangerous prisoners should be separated from the rest and killed. Over the course of three weeks, over two thousand prisoners were evacuated to a place about twenty miles from Madrid called Paracuellos del Jarama and executed without trial. "It would have been impossible to remove such a huge number of inmates from the prisons without counting on the Security Chief of the Office of Public Order; [but] for his part, Carrillo always defended his innocence." Cercas exonerates Carrillo from responsibility for the executions as well. 

For his part, Gutiérrez Mellado had been one of the officers who had incited his garrison to revolt at the outset of the rebellion and had been imprisoned in Madrid for three months as a result. Accordingly, he "was also one of the officers who... should have been taken out of the prison along with dozens of his comrades and executed." But, "miraculously," as Cercas puts it (the seed of the sentimental and strangely symmetrical scene that Carrillo and Gutiérrez Mellado share on the night of February 23, 1981), "because of the disorder in which the operation was carried out, Gutiérrez Mellado was not taken out and shot that evening," and somehow survived until the executions finished.

By Cercas's judgment, "it's impossible that Carrillo was still the villain of Paracuellos for Gutiérrez Mellado in 1981," even if popular myth had designated him as such. And perhaps that just contributes to the total irony with which the hours of seclusion the two men spent together on the night of the coup of 23 February were imbued, forty-five years after the two men had first become "standard-bearers to the concord they combated in their youth." At least it does for Cercas. And if nothing else, the author's (granted, somewhat suppositional) description of the construction of that irony is a thrilling conclusion to one section of his book. 

It's difficult to say whether the history presented in The Anatomy of a Moment is presented the way that it is because Cercas had already decided on the motif that he describes in his prologue when he wrote the rest of it or if the author's failure to effectively compose the novel he wanted to write about the coup of February 23, 1981 did in fact cause him to realize that he couldn't effectively present the pertinent history in any other way than he did (which is, of course, the argument that Cercas makes in his prologue). In other words, it's difficult to say whether Cercas was more concerned with the means of his book or its ends. And that he regularly brings up similar questions with regard to his (historical) characters makes the chicken or egg game he plays with the structure of his novel-not-novel. 

And of course the book describes the actions of numerous characters other than Suárez, Gutiérrez Mellado, and Carrillo (although the gestures of the three that night in the Cortes may be representative of Cercas's proposed anatomy, those three men alone were not themselves the coup). But other than for understanding the course of the events that Cercas describes -- which is of course essential for getting through his book (and the heft of it demonstrates the veritable impossibility of trying to deliver a comprehensive distillation in brief) -- all the names and dates themselves seem sometimes almost superfluous. Or it's probably more correct to say that they could seem so, and especially for non-Spaniards, the majority of whom would likely be encountering those names and dates for the first time. (Consider reading the details of the Watergate scandal in All the President's Men as a the average non-American -- or, for that matter, as one.) 

So, while it is true that Cercas the novelist defends his project of "pure reality" by expressing his desire to dispel the myths and misconceptions that he sees as clouding an accurate understating of 23 February ("how many Spaniards must think Adolfo Suárez was a fictional character, that General Gutiérrez Mellado was a fictional character, that Santiago Carrillo or Lieutenant Colonel Tejero were fictional caharcters"), he might still be weaving a mythology of his own. And so the question becomes the question of how noticeably he want us to know that he knows it? 

In English translation by Anne McLean, The Anatomy of a Moment runs to just over four hundred pages including its bibliography and its endnotes. But without checking any of those references, or for those not already intimately familiar with the subject, which, again, should include most readers not from Spain, is it possible to know where the fact of the record ends and conjecture begins? In translation then, the literary symmetry of the coup as it's portrayed in The Anatomy of a Moment might even achieve another level of perfection. Without Cercas's prologue, it's not impossible that the body of his book might in fact be read as a fictionalization of the events of February 23, 1981. Ironically, it's the presence of the prologue that insists of readers their consideration of that possibility. 

Considered in the extreme, the bulk of The Anatomy of a Moment, that is to say the majority of its historical information, seems almost to exist only so that Cercas can bridge his prologue with his epilogue, which, unsurprisingly, he's titled "Prologue to a Novel," and in which the author seems to give up the game, although his move in that direction might also mean that he's still playing. "[The] true answer lies in the question itself." Javier Cercas with Suárez, Gutiérrez Mellado, and Carrillo in the mise en abyme of the Cortes chamber on February 23, 1981! "Unless... the challenge I set myself in writing this book, trying to respond by way of reality to what I didn't know and didn't want to respond to by way of fiction, was an unmeetable challenge, and that the answer to that question," as Cercas probably would like for his readers to already have guessed, "the only possible answer to that question -- is a novel." 

And is that what Cercas wrote? Obviously, without the reality of the coup and its attendant historical facts Cercas wouldn't have had either a prologue or an epilogue to connect. Probably not, but it might be, it could be imagined, that the author went to all of the effort of investigating the coup of 23 February simply to prop up his literary agenda. Or, on the other hand, it might be that Cercas, just as he says he did, simply wanted the organization of his book to reflect the enigmatic organization of the history he investigated: 

Three days after the coup d'état [Suárez] left for a long holiday... it was the understandable bolting of a man undone and weary to the core, but it was also a bad way to leave the premiership, because it meant abandoning his successor: he did not hand over his powers, didn't leave him a single suggestion or a single piece of advice, and all Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo found in his office in Moncloa was a locked safe of the ruler's secrets but whose only contents turned out to be, as he found out after a locksmith forced it open, a piece of paper folded in four on which Suárez had written down the combination to the safe.

And all that just to wonder -- or make a case for -- whether a book like The Anatomy of a Moment should be considered as a subject for a piece on literature in translation. The book wasn't shelved in the literature section, and that should have been a sign, but then again, the edition on the shelf in the Spanish history section was definitely translated, and the blurb from El País on the cover hinted at almost definite literary merit. Sure, literary nonfiction isn't especially un-American (perhaps it's even the opposite), but that fact too seemed to present an interesting opportunity for participating in the game, even if the game wasn't exactly apparent until after Cercas's prologue -- and then not completely until it was possible to see that prologue, that "Epilogue to a Novel," as the real epilogue to the novel that Cercas may or may not have written into his book. Justified? "The only possible answer to that question" is, er, whatever Javier Cercas would say.