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Javier Cercas: Anatomía de un instante (2009)


Anatomía de un instante took me quite a while to read. This is partially because my reading habits have changed since I now own an e-reader and only read “on the page” in the evenings rather than, as before, also on my commute. The other reason is the book itself. It’s definitely worth a read, but as the title suggests, it is the dissection of a moment, and as such it became a bit tedious at times.

Javier Cercas takes apart a key moment in Spanish history: the attempted coup d’état of 23rd February 1981. The coup attempt occurred as Parliament was in session in order to elect a new Prime Minister after Adolfo Suárez, who had been head of Government as Spain transitioned from dictatorship to democracy, had stepped down. Why did Suárez, unlike all the other MPs except Communist Santiago Carrillo and General Gutiérrez Mellado, not throw himself on the floor as armed military police stormed the Congress? Why did he stay in his seat? Why didn’t Santiago Carrillo and Gutiérrez Mellado hide under their chairs? What, in fact, happened to make 23-F, as Spaniards call the date of the coup, possible in the first place? What brought different protagonists of the coup to the places they were in on the day? And why did the coup fail in the end?

Cercas approaches all these questions with a sharp scalpel and slowly peels back the different and complex layers that surround the key scene of Suárez in his chair in the empty half-circle of the parliament.

This can be very interesting. The parts where he describes what happens as Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero and his followers take the Congress hostage, start shooting, and besiege the parliament is thrilling. It is thrilling to see how the coup slowly begins to veer off course, with several people who were thought to be favourable to the enterprise by those who executed it, first sitting on the fence and later on positioning themselves against it – including the Spanish King.

Anatomía de un instante becomes tiresome during those passages where Cercas discusses how people got to where they stood on the day of the coup. Suárez, Carrillo, and Gutiérrez Mellado are analysed in particular detail. Some of the golpistas or people sympathetic to them also receive their share of in-depth assessment. All this is extremely informative and shows that Cercas has done a lot of research. But even so, it gets a bit much sometimes.Especially the parts discussing what everyone did after the coup, but also some of those detailing what happened in the run-up to it, were a bit too rich in detail for my liking.

The tediousness of these passages was reinforced by the repetition of expressions. I thought at some point that if I had to read the phrase “el pequeño Madrid del poder” (‘the small Madrid of power’) one more time I would have to jump out of the window, punch my pillow or commit some other similarly pointless act of rage. Yes, the political elite of Madrid was tiny, I GOT IT THE THIRD TIME YOU USED THAT PRHASE AND THERE WAS NO NEED TO DO IT ANOTHER TWO DOZEN TIMES!

This book is definitely for the thorough-minded. But it’s also a fascinating account of of a pivotal point in Spanish history that still shapes how politics in the country functions today. It’s also an in-depth study of how the power-hungry think and function. To those fascinated by the intricate details of crucial political events and contemporary history, I would definitely recommend this book.

Evaluation: 6/10

English title: The Anatomy of a Moment
German title: Anatomie eines Augenblicks


Author: bettinathenomad

Nomad. International Relations geek. Reader. Feminist. Swimmer. Boulderer. Runner. Hiker. Not necessarily in that order.

3 thoughts on “Javier Cercas: Anatomía de un instante (2009)

  1. I still want to try to get to this this year, Bettina, but I guess I’ll do so with lowered expectations of some sort having read your review (no real problem). Did you feel this might have worked better as a work of fiction or non-fiction by any chance? I thought it was marketed as a purely a non-fiction work when it came out, but I have since read a thing or two saying that Cercas considers it a novel or some sort of novel/non-fiction hybrid. I’m a little confused now…

    • Hi Richard, I’m really looking forward to your thoughts on this. I knew you also had it on your reading list and I hope I haven’t lowered your expectations too much and am curious whether you’ll find the same ‘faults’ with the book.
      As for the fiction/non-fiction question, I had also read that apparently Cercas considers it more of a novel, and the prologue does lead you to expect something like that (it’s entitled “Epílogo de una novela”). But for me it always remained very firmly in the non-fiction half, mainly for two reasons. Firstly, there are no “novelesque” elements where Cercas takes narrative liberties. When he’s speculating, he always makes this very clear. Secondly, he as an author – and notably not as a fictional narrator – is quite present throughout. He talks about the research process, whom he spoke or didn’t speak to, the questions he could and couldn’t clarify.
      To be honest, I’m really not too sure where the fiction/non-fiction hybrid comes in. Maybe – and I’m completely speculating here – it’s the aforementioned thoroughness that makes him consider it that way, especially regarding the events as they unfolded during the day of the coup itself. If you stretch the notion (considerably), it’s probably as close to stream of consciousness as a non-fictional work could ever get.
      As I said, I’m curious what you’ll make of it.

  2. Pingback: Leonardo Padura: El hombre que amaba a los perros (2009) | Liburuak

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