The third truth

Javier Cercas’ book ‘The Anatomy of a Moment’ explores the 1981 failed coup in Spain. The book is a mix of history and literature, a search, perhaps, for two opposing truths

Javier Cercas

1. What is a novel? A novel is anything we read as such; that’s to say, if anybody were capable of reading the phone book as a novel, then the Madrid telephone guide would be a novel. In that sense, my book, The Anatomy of a Moment , is a novel. Does it apply to others? I don’t know. What I do know is that for some readers, it’s a strange book. Perhaps it is.

Anatomy explores the moment when, over the evening of February 23, 1981, a group of military would-be coup leaders entered a crowded Congress firing their guns, and only three parliamentarians refused to obey their order to take cover under their seats: the prime minister, Adolfo Suárez; the deputy prime minister, General Gutiérrez Mellado; and the secretary general of the Communist Party, Santiago Carrillo. Attempting to wrest meaning from that instant when those three men decided to risk their lives for democracy - and precisely those three, who had played key roles in building something they had spent their lives despising - means looking into their biographies and the unlikely events that brought them together and separated them; it means explaining the victory of democracy in Spain. The way the book does this is unusual. Anatomy seems like a history book; sometimes it seems like an essay; it also seems like a piece of reportage; and at times a tornado of parallel biographies whirling around the crossroads of history; and sometimes it feels like a novel, a historical novel, perhaps. There is no point denying that Anatomy is all these things, or at least part of them. Which prompts the question, can a book like this be at heart a novel? In other words, again, I ask, what is a novel?

Cervantes started a genre, and at the same time exhausted its possibilities
Balzac famously said that "the novel is the private history of nations"
Not even journalism has been able to see off the omnivorous appetite of the novel

2. One might say that the modern novel is a unique genre because all its possibilities are contained in a single book: Cervantes started a genre with Don Quixote , and at the same time exhausted its possibilities, even though it remains inexhaustible; in other words, Don Quixote defines the rules of the modern novel by ring-fencing the territory in which from then onwards we novelists have all worked in, and we have yet to colonize.

So what is this genre? For Cervantes, the novel is a genre of all the genres; it is also a degenerate genre. It is a degenerate novel because it is a bastard, a sine nobilitate genre, a snobbish genre; the noble genres for Cervantes and for Renaissance men were classics, Aristotelian: the lyrical arts, theater, epics. That's why Don Quixote was barely understood by its contemporaries, or at best was seen as mere entertainment, a best-seller. Let's not fool ourselves - Cervantes would never have won the Cervantes Prize.

Cervantes called his book "a prose epic," hoping to find a place for it in the classical genre. That said, the strange thing is that the initial piece of trickery ends up being what the book is about; it is a hybrid, infinitely malleable. Obviously, only a degenerate genre can become its own genre, because only a plebeian genre, a genre that has no need to protect its purity or aristocratic virtues, could blend with all the others, taking them over and creating a half-breed genre.

Don Quixote is a costume trunk where all the genres, held together by Cervantes' needlework, form a unique amalgam, like an encyclopedia that stores up all the possible narratives and rhetoric known by its author, all the literary genres of the time, from poetry to prose, from legalese to historic terminology, from the pastoral novel to the sentimental novel, from the picaresque or the Byzantine. And as that is what Don Quixote is, so is the novel, and in particular an important current, that stretches from Sterne to Joyce, from Fielding or Diderot, to Perec or Calvino.

Perhaps it would be worth telling the history of the novel as the history of the way that the novel tries to appropriate other genres, in the same way that never seems happy with itself, of its plebeian nature, always aspiring to widen the genre's horizons. This is already clear in the 18th century, particularly when the English took over the novel (or the Spaniards let it slip through their fingers), learning Cervantes' lesson much earlier and much better than us. But it is even clearer from the 19th century on, the century when the novel came in to its own, and fought tooth and nail to cease being mere entertainment and to win a place among the other noble genres. Balzac placed the novel alongside history, famously saying that "the novel is the private history of nations."

Years later, Flaubert, at the same time Balzac's biggest follower and his main corrector, became increasingly obsessed with elevating prose to the esthetic category of verse, dreaming of a novel with the rigor and formal complexity of poetry. Many of the renovators of narrative in the first half of the 20th century adopted Flaubert as their model, and, each in his own way - Joyce returning to the stylistic, narrative and discursive multiplicity of Cervantes; Kafka to the fable as a way to create nightmares; and Proust squeezing the last drop from the psychological novel - prolong Flaubert's proposal, but some, above all the German writers - Thomas Mann, Robert Musil - fight to imbue the novel with the weightiness of the essay, converting philosophical, political and historical theories into the components of a novel as relevant as characters or plot.

Not even journalism, one of the great narrative genres of the modern age, has been able to see off the omnivorous appetite of the novel. What the New Journalism of the 1960s was trying to achieve, as Tom Wolfe pointed out, was for journalism to be read in the same way as the novel, among other things because it used the same strategies as the novel. But the upshot was not only that journalism cannibalized the novel, but rather that the novel - Truman Capote's In Cold Blood , for example - cannibalized journalism, ingesting its resources, and converting journalistic material into material for a novel.

The epic, history, poetry, essay, journalism: these are just a few of the literary genres that the novel has consumed over the course of its history; these are also the genres that, in its way, Anatomy uses, a book that from that perspective, perhaps leaves us with no choice but to consider it a novel, even if only because, from Cervantes to the present day, we tend to call this type of half-breed book novels. That aside, Anatomy is far from being an exceptional or singular book. Other works by contemporary authors explore similar and related themes. In fact, the hybridization of genres is, aside from being an essential feature of the novel, an essential feature of post-modernism.

Borges, perhaps the unwitting founder of post-modernism, took almost 40 years to find the narrator within himself, and he did it in a story called The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim . This blend of fiction and reality, of narrative and essay, is what opened the doors of the great works to Borges. In Borges, the essay and the story couple and fecundate; in the same way that they do in the works of other modern authors such as Sebald or Magris, Kundera or Coetzee, and peer into the confines of the genre, trying to expand, or simply colonize once and for all the territory mapped out by Don Quixote . So, as far as I am concerned, Anatomy wants to join in expanding or colonizing Cervantes' territory, which is another reason why the book can be read in a novelistic way.

But it won't be the last, and doubtless the most significant among them. What matters here is that I am, above all, a novelist, and although I have also written essays and worked as a journalist, in this book I have not operated as a journalist or essayist, but as a novelist: the structure of the book is novelesque, many of the technical devices are novelistic, including essential elements of narration such as irony or seeing things from many perspectives. All these are part of the genre, in the same way that its ambiguous and multifaceted takes on reality are.

My principal concern while I was writing the book was form, and a writer, and particularly a novelist, is somebody who is concerned above all with form, somebody who feels that in literature, form is at the bottom of everything, and who thinks that only through form is it possible to access a truth that would otherwise be inaccessible. There's more. Literary genres can be identified by their formal features, but perhaps also for the type of questions that they pose, and by the type of answers they give. For example, the central questions in the run up to the February 23 coup could be these: what happened in Spain on February 23, 1981? Who was Adolfo Suárez? In return, it is very unlikely that a history book or an essay would pose the central question of Anatomy : why did Adolfo Súarez remain in his seat when the bullets were flying in parliament on February 23?

In an effort to answer that last question, the tools of the historian, the journalist, the essayist, the biographer, and the psychologist are all necessary. But the question is also a moral one; a question very similar to the one posed, for example, in my earlier novel Soldiers of Salamis : why, during the Civil War, would a Republican soldier save the life of Rafael Sánchez Mazas when the circumstance should have dictated that he shoot him? These are moral questions, as is the central question of Soldiers and Anatomy , but they are also essentially novelistic questions, and would be out of place or impertinent in a history book or an essay. Furthermore, as I have said, the nature of a literary genre is not simply defined by the questions it poses, but also by the replies to those questions. At the end of Soldiers , after a long search that takes up most of the book, we still do not know why the Republican soldier saved the life of Sánchez Mazas. In fact, we're not even sure who the soldier was. The answer to the question is that there is no answer; or, to put it another way, the answer to the question is the question itself, the search in itself, the book itself.

The same thing happens in Anatomy : after a long search, which takes up most of the book, we still don't know why Adolfo Suárez remained motionless in his seat while the bullets whizzed past his head. During the search, the book does however answer some of the questions that the historian or essayist might have asked. For example, February 23 was the beginning of democracy in Spain, and the end of the Franco era and the Civil War. Adolfo Suárez collaborated with Franco. He was a social and political climber who was eventually converted into a hero of the democratic era. But the novelistic question, the central question, remains unanswered; or, once again, the answer is the question itself, the book itself. In short, if it is possible to define the novel as a genre that tries to protect questions from answers; in other words, a genre that avoids clear and unequivocal answers and only admits questions that demand ambiguous, complex, plural and most definitely ironic answers, then it is possible to define the book as a novel. There is no doubt that Anatomy is a novel.

3. Let's accept then, that The Anatomy of a Moment is a novel. But it certainly isn't a work of fiction. Does that then mean that my book isn't a novel? Are all novels obliged to be fiction? And why isn't Anatomy a work of fiction?

In March 2008, I had already been working on a novel that mixed fiction with reality to tell the story of the failed February 23 coup and the triumph of democracy in Spain from that instant on. In fact, by that time I had finished a second draft of the novel, but was still not happy with it; there was something essential still missing, but I didn't know what it was. Despondent, and hoping to forget my failed novel, I went on holiday with my family. During the break I read an article by Umberto Eco about a survey in the United Kingdom showing that a quarter of the people there believed that Winston Churchill was a fictional character.

That was when I suddenly saw the light. The February 23 coup is seen in Spain as a fictional event, a vast collective fiction created over the last 30 years out of novelistic speculation, invented memories, legends, half truths and straightforward lies. The explanation behind this communal madness is complex, but it is linked to a very simple fact: the February 23 coup was a coup with no written plans, no documentation - or at least what historians regard as documentation. This has meant that historians have left the job of telling what happened to the coup leaders themselves, to unscrupulous journalists in too much of a hurry, and to the popular imagination, with the result that for decades in Spain the most disparate versions of those events have been in circulation. A vast collective fiction, I repeat, on a par with the Kennedy assassination in the United States.

That is what I thought I had understood during that brief vacation. That, and also that there was no point in writing fiction about another fictional event; that to do so was meaningless in literary terms. What might be meaningful was to do the very opposite: to write a story stitched onto reality, stripped of fiction, gutted of the novelistic, mythical and speculative aspects of a story constructed over three decades, and which still clung to it. This is what the book is really trying to do (and why the first sentence in it comes from Umberto Eco). Starting from the main, if not to say sole, documentary evidence: the television recording of the entry of the coup leaders into the parliament building, a piece of documentary evidence so obvious that nobody seems to see it as such, but which to my mind is still the best guide to understanding what happened. Anatomy tried to tell the story of the failed coup and the triumph of democracy as honestly as possible, as a historian or journalist would, while applying techniques and methods that a novelist would. That said, I repeat, the result doesn't mean that it should be read as a novel.

4. So does this mean that novels do a better job of recounting history better than a historian would? Does it mean that the novel can replace a history book? My answer is no. History and literature have different goals: both involve the search for truth, but they are opposing truths. We have known since Aristotle that historical truth is about facts, dates and events: a truth that seeks to fix what happened to certain people in a certain time and place. But literary truth, or poetry as Aristotle called it, is a moral truth, abstract and universal; a truth that seeks to establish what happens to people under any circumstances.

Anatomy pursues both these opposing truths at the same time: it searches for the factual truth regarding certain men in Spain during the 1970s and 1980s; but it also seeks out a moral truth, a truth that is above all about those men that the book calls - applying an oxymoron - the heroes of treason; those men who, like the three protagonists of the book, Suárez, Gutiérrez Mellado and Carrillo - two of Franco's old guard, and a hard-line Stalinist - had the courage to betray their totalitarian past and to pledge their loyalty to freedom, and in so doing, to put their lives on the line. At the same time, seen in this light, it is also the case that a book that seeks to reconcile the irreconcilable truths of literature and history, Anatomy might come over as not just an unusual book, but also a contradiction, another oxymoron.

Perhaps that is the nub of the question: a book where, ideally, historical truth illuminates literary truth, and where the outcome is neither of those truths, but a third truth taken from both, and which somehow bridges between them. An impossible book, some might say. I don't disagree. But I also wonder if the only books really worth writing are the impossible ones, and whether a writer can only aspire to decent failure when writing. I also wonder if I would have been so concerned with the historical truth of February 23 if the historians had not forgotten to do so, or if they had not considered the task irrelevant or impossible, handing me the gift of this strange book. Whatever the answer, one thing is for sure: I am just a novelist. I am not a historian, and perhaps for that reason Anatomy , where I have searched for two opposing truths in equal measure, historical truth is at the service of literary truth, and that both have fed this third conjectured truth. I don't know. What I do know is that if this is the case, then that would be the clincher in regarding Anatomy as a novel. But that is for the reader to decide.

A longer version of this text was read for the Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture at the Hay-On-Wye Festival de UK, on May 29, 2011. Javier Cercas (Ibahernando, Cáceres, 1962) is the author, among other books, of Soldiers of Salamis , which won the Salambó, Llibreter, and Independent Foreign Fiction prizes, and The Anatomy of a Moment , which won the National Narrative Prize. www.javiercercas.com

Javier Cercas, author of <i>Anatomy of a Moment</i>.
Javier Cercas, author of Anatomy of a Moment.LUIS MAGÁN

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