Robert S.C. Gordon is Professor of Modern Italian Culture at Cambridge University. His teaching and research career has moved between the UK (Oxford, Cambridge), Italy (Pavia), and the US (National Humanities Center). He is the author of books on the filmmaker and poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini (Pasolini. Forms of Subjectivity, 1996), on the neo-realist classic film Bicycle Thieves (BFI Film Classics, 2008) and on the Holocaust survivor and writer, Primo Levi (Primo Levi's Ordinary Virtues, 2001; (ed) Auschwitz Report, 2006; (ed) Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi, 2007). His most recent book, published this summer in America, is The Holocaust in Italian Culture, 1944-2010. Here Robert writes about Javier Cercas's The Anatomy of a Moment.
Robert S.C. Gordon on The Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas
Like many academics, I'm guilty of shamelessly mining the books I read to solve my own professional problems, to help me out writing the books I write. The ones that stay with me aren't so much those that evoke a haze of happy memories, as those that cut across my field of vision, make me see something I've been missing. Less haze, more light. My choice for Norm's Writer's Choice series is a case in point.
It's a book I read a year or so ago, in 2011, in the midst of a bout of recurrent professional identity crisis. Briefly, I'm a literary critic by training, a specialist in Italian literature (of all things). But like many literature scholars in a world with only a passing interest in literature, I've branched out since my training days to work on film, philosophy, memory, operating loosely at the borderlands between culture and history. (Others with a lit crit training migrated from literature into the murky world of what used to be called 'theory', but that's another story.) I sometimes nervously call myself a cultural historian these days, but the label always comes with an anxiety attached, of not being a 'proper' historian able to tell what's 'true' from what's 'false' about the past; but also of not quite believing, after years working with complicated and contradictory 'texts', that history can live without the subtleties that words, stories, artefacts and images bring with them.
In recent years, I've worked a lot on the Holocaust - on the extraordinary Italian writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi and on Italy's fraught relationship with Fascism and its legacies - and here more than anywhere, perhaps, there's an intense imperative to strike a near-impossible balance between the grim realities of history and the stories and images that carry it down to later generations. Finishing a book on Italian responses to the Holocaust, I was stuck on precisely how to keep hold of both the reality and the image, without coming over all postmodern and tricksy? The book I've chosen here - nothing to do with the Holocaust, but all to do with recollecting a collective trauma from the recent past - manages to achieve exactly this, rather brilliantly.
In English, it's called The Anatomy of a Moment (it appeared in Spanish in 2009 as Anatomía de un instante) and its author is the Spanish novelist Javier Cercas. The book is not a novel, however: in fact, Cercas tells us at the start that it's rather the product of his abject failure to write a novel on the same subject - in other words, it is in itself further evidence of that crisis of literature I was mentioning, of the collapse in the vocation literary fiction once had to explain our world to ourselves. (See David Shields's glib, but sparkling Reality Hunger on this.) So Anatomy is a true story, but not merely the true story of a failed novel (a sort of latter-day 8½). Far more importantly, it tells the dramatic story and long back-story of the failed military coup d'état in Spain in 1981, which came within hours of overthrowing the fragile new democracy there, a mere five years after the demise of General Franco and his 40-year dictatorship.
A hazy memory of my own comes into this (perhaps even academics need some haze): the memory of an image from TV news, of an oddly hatted officer gauchely standing on the speaker's dais of a parliament, brandishing a gun; and the news of a coup undone by a young King's odd but heroic democratic instinct. There's nothing much more I know or ever knew about this pivotal moment in modern Spanish history. Imagine, then, the peculiarly satisfying discovery that Anatomy of a Moment, written from the heart of an intensely felt national story of near tragedy and redemption, is obsessively, repeatedly, compellingly built around that very TV image and icon, as the Spanish parliament was occupied and the fate of its democracy hung on the bluster of that officer, Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero, and his perilous weapon.
Here's the oblique connection to the value of a certain kind of cultural history: the book shows how it can be that a snapshot, certain crystallized images of moments in time, come to make history and be the focus of our interrogations of the past for generations thereafter. For TV footage of Spain in 1981, think Zapruder's home movie of 1963; or, in Italy, think of the grim press photos of Aldo Moro in 1978, held in a Red Brigades 'prison cell' and then dumped in a car boot, shot dead, half way between the offices of the government and opposition parties. (Indeed, the closest work to Anatomy of a Moment I can think of, for the force of a great writer contemplating the staged drama of a nation on the brink of catastrophe, is Leonardo Sciascia's The Moro Affair.)
Anatomy of a Moment dances incessantly around that footage. Spiralling out from it - and Cercas's sentences spiral and spin too (to the irritation of some readers, but the spiral certainly fits the form) - he tells us a panoply of stories, human and political dramas, filling out the frame-by-frame sequence, taking us dizzyingly beyond the bald 'fact' of the coup and its failure. There is a driving structure to it all, though, and that too comes from one image, one snapshot that encapsulates generations of devastating conflict - and some surprising harmonies - from modern Spanish (and not only Spanish) history, going back as far as the 1930s Civil War.
Moving on a few frames from Tejero's bluster, as his cronies shoot into the air, the film shows the mass of parliamentary deputies diving for cover beneath the hemispherical benches. Who wouldn't? But with spine-tingling force and (narrative, historical, human) intuition, Cercas draws our eyes toward three solitary figures who sat stock still, backs upright, defiantly facing the gunfire, as if indifferent to the coup, perhaps even to death itself. The three were Adolfo Suárez, the Prime Minister; Santiago Carrillo, leader of the Spanish Communist Party; and General Gutiérrez Mellado, Deputy Prime Minister. The weary ex-Francoist and great political survivor; the Communist ex-fighter, hero and politician; the other face of the military, looking on at his colleagues' betrayal: around these three figures and what they each represent, as both allegories for a historical process and as stubbornly irreducible case studies of human character, shaped by family and history, Cercas weaves his remarkable tale.
Images deceive as much as they inform, of course, and we should be suspicious of the seductive symbolic arrangement offered up by the chance three-way conjunction of a single instant. But Anatomy is a remarkable achievement nevertheless, a compelling work of narrative/history that understands the power and complexity of the single icon - and knows how to anatomize it, both as an image and as an entry in a vast research archive; and it works pretty well too as a talisman for those of us who think we need such skills to throw light on the textured patterns of the past.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]