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Thirty-Five Minutes in History and Imagination

by Javier Cercas translated by Anne McLean

Pub Date: Feb. 15th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-60819-491-9
Publisher: Bloomsbury

An intricately fashioned blow-by-blow account of the 1981 coup d’etat in Spain.

Spanish novelist Cercas (The Speed of Light, 2006, etc.) originally wrote a novel about the attempted coup of Feb. 23, 1981, an event in which the pistol-waving Lt. Col. Antonio Tejero and his Francoist Guardia Civil burst into the Congress of Deputies on national television and hijacked the elected parliamentarians until the next day. Frustrated by the myriad conflicting takes on the coup—was its failure a triumph of the fledgling democracy just getting on its feet after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, or did it spell a collapse of democracy since no one raised much of a voice in opposition?—the author turned his obsession of the golpe de estado into this deeply reflective investigative work. The book is so close to its subject that it requires some knowledge of recent Spanish political history. The day of the coup, the deputies were voting to approve a new prime minister, after the resignation of Adolfo Suárez, whose crisis-plagued five-year term had followed Franco’s death in 1975. Curiously, only Suárez remained in his seat (as the other deputies cowered under their chairs), while his deputy prime minister, Gen. Gutierrez Mellado, confronted the golpistas. Cercas sifts scrupulously through the “shimmering labyrinth” of evidence and offers some plausible motivation for the coup. The economy was in a tailspin, and the unrepentant Francoists had been itching for a change of course since Suárez took power. The Basque separatist movement, the ETA, had destabilized the army through terrorism, and several members of the Spanish intelligence service collaborated with the coup leaders. The king, however, quickly put the military officers in line, and the golpistas backed down without bloodshed. Cercas provides a creatively imagined account of an event that should be instructive to students of evolutionary democracy.

Many American readers may struggle with the dense narrative, but those who stick with it will become immersed in its near-hypnotic power.