Review: ‘The Anatomy of a Moment’ by Javier Cercas

Originally published on Goodreads

Historic non-fiction can easily be dry and tedious, especially when it’s a recommendation rather than about a topic you’re already interested in.

This book, though. Damn.

Here Javier Cercas deftly untangles the complex threads that run through a moment of massive historical significance: the attempted coup d’etat of 23rd February 1981, where the Civil Guard led by Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero attempted to overthrow Spain’s fledgeling, post-dictatorial democracy.

Rather than just reel off the facts about the event (abbreviated to 23-F), Cercas invites you into his head while he painstakingly organises his research and establishes his own thoughts and beliefs around the events that took place, the motives of the various people involved and, most importantly, the significance of their actions.

The result is a fascinating account, and also a real insight into the process by which history is written. Events happen, each has a reason, and depending how each is interpreted and how well the various interpretations perform against each other in the court of public opinion, one version of events becomes dominant. 23-F was interpreted variously before, during, and after as a soft coup to correct a flawed implementation of democracy, a hard coup to replace it with a republic or a military junta, an attempt to restore Francoism, a final nail in the coffin of Francoism’s most enthusiastic advocates, a necessary evil to protect the monarchy, a means to remove the monarchy, and many more.

Ultimately, we see that all of 23-F boils down to the personal motives, relationships, grudges, and rivalries of a few individuals. The military regiments, the media, and the various other organisations involved are just there to provide clout to, and to either credit or discredit, the individuals and the narratives are attempting to craft; the futures they are attempting to weave from the fragmented threads of the present.

On top of this excellent approach to presenting and interpreting history, Cercas is just a pleasure to read. His writing style is inviting and compelling in its honesty and, while some sentences need to be read a few times before they really sink in, the thoroughness and care with which he chooses words, constructs ideas, and resolves narratives makes for truly enjoyable reading.

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