'The Anatomy of a Moment,' Javier Cercas

My knowledge of modern Spanish history — like my knowledge of so much else — is pathetically thin; sure, I know some about Franco and the overthrow of the Republic and the years of darkness and stagnation that followed, but most of what I’m conversant in starts with the limping end of Felipe González’s final government and takes me up to now. Half of it probably comes from Almodóvar movies. This makes it even more astounding that I found Javier Cercas’ The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-Five Minutes in History and Imagination so gripping. The book examines the attempted coup against Adolfo Suárez and the democratically-elected government that took place just thirty years ago, during which the nation’s parliament was held hostage for nearly 20 hours. Cercas is a novelist by trade — the book was originally intended as a novel — and he puts his skills to great use as he circles back among the politicians, the military and the King to try to examine who was actually responsible for the coup, and the failure of the coup, and what the whole thing said about a society in transition from dictatorship to democracy. Part detective story, part social history, Anatomy, with its regressions and suppositions, reads like one of the best pieces of contemporary European literature we’ve been lucky enough to have translated into English. This surely won’t appeal to everyone, but if you’re at all interested please don’t let a lack of familiarity with the material hold you back; even someone as ignorant as I about the subject found it a remarkably compelling book.