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LITERARY REVIEW February 2011
by British diplomats during his first term, which are now becoming available under the thirty-year rule. The Br i t i s h ambassador i n Washington, S i r Nicholas Henderson, reported that Reagan lacked both ‘mental vitality and political vision’. Mrs Thatcher’s assessment was closer to Hoffman’s.
Apart from judging Soviet intentions during the final decade of the Cold War, the most difficult intelligence challenge for both the United States and Britain was assessing the threat of the biolog ical weapons programme that Moscow insisted it did not possess. The spy satellite imagery which identified nuclear missile silos was almost useless when it came to searching for biological weapons laboratories. Once again the most important intelligence came from SIS. Its chief source was one of the leading scientists in the Soviet biological warfare programme, Vladimir Pasechnik, who defected to Britain in October 1989. Pasechnik revealed that the Soviet organisation, Biopreparat, which manufactured medicines and vaccines, was also researching and seeking to weaponise the world’s most dangerous pathogens. One of the Br itish team who debr iefed Pasechnik remembers the occasion as ‘an extraordinary moment. If you’re an intelligence officer, this doesn’t happen but once in a lifetime. Maybe never in a lifetime.’
I met Pasechnik only once, several years after his defection. Despite his reserved manner, it was easy to see why he had so impressed his debriefers. He was careful to explain the limitations as well as the extent of his knowledge, and it was difficult to doubt the sincerity of his desire to alert the outside world to the threat of Soviet biological warfare. Pasechnik’s intelligence was later confirmed by the deputy head of Biopreparat, who defected to the United States. Western leaders were never able to get straight answers from Gorbachev about the biological weapons programme. Boris Yeltsin, who became Russian President after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, had no such inhibitions, telling the British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd: ‘I know all about the Soviet biological weapons programme. It’s still going ahead, even though the organizers claim it’s merely defensive research. They are fanatics and they will not stop voluntarily ... I’m going to close down the institutes.’ As David Hoffman shows, a long struggle lay ahead.
Cur iously, Kim Philby and the rest of ‘Stalin’s Englishmen’ who entered the service of the KGB remain far better known in twenty-first-century Britain than the Russians who worked for British intelligence. Today’s Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR, continues to celebrate the successes of the KGB’s past agents. Just before Christmas, it opened a new memorial to Philby, celebrating his ‘sincere and passionate belief ’ in the rightness of the cause for which he worked. The SVR still cannot bring itself to acknowledge the ‘sincere and passionate belief ’ of Gordievsky and Pasechnik in a far more worthy cause. To order this book for £16, see LR Bookshop opposite HISTORY
ONE DAY I N FEBRUARY
THE ANATOMY OF A MOMENT
By Javier Cercas (Translated by Anne McLean)
(Bloomsbury 403pp £18.99)
AT 6.23PM ON Monday 23 February 1981, a group of right-wing soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero burst into the main hall of the Spanish Parliament building and fired shots into the air. Spain was then at a cr itical stage in its transition to democracy. Adolfo Suárez, the prime minister appointed by the king after Franco’s death in 1975, had recently announced his resignation, though he was still officially in power, and indeed was presiding that Monday evening over an investiture vote to confirm his successor. Spain’s first years of democracy had been generally untroubled, with Suárez over seeing such important developments as the c re a t i on o f Spain’s reg i onal autonomies and the legalisation of its Communist Party. But by February 1981, a combination of the country’s economic problems, escalating ETA violence and a general lack of confidence in the government had led to the growing dissatisfaction that came so dramatically to the fore that evening.
The s eventeen and a half hours between the storming of the parliament and the release of the deputies at noon the following day were – in the words of Javier Cercas – ‘the most confusing and most decisive … of the last half-century of Spanish history’. Though the television footage of the coup (an unprecedented moment in television history) was not shown until after midday on the 24th, the unfolding of the evening’s events was recorded live on radio, leaving the whole of Spain in a state of paralysing suspense. Madrid’s streets were emptied, while all over the country people stayed at home, planned to go into hiding, and even considered fleeing abroad. Many feared bloody reprisals comparable to those that had accompanied Pinochet’s ousting of Allende in Chile. Some envisaged another civil war. But no one made any attempt to go out and defend democracy. The then eighteen-yearold Cercas heroically rushed off to his university in the romantic expectation of encountering barricades being set up and riotous demonstrations. All he found instead were two students ‘as gentle as they were disorientated’ and the real and unheroic reason for his journey: a classmate on whom he had a crush.
The story of 23 February provides r ich material for psychological drama, and cause for endless speculation as to what exactly happened during those anxious hours of waiting for an outcome. As well as numerous works of investigative journalism, the coup has inspired several fictionalised accounts, including a hugely popular miniseries on Spanish television, 23-F: El día más difícil del Rey (23/2: The King’s Worst Day). The present book began its life as a novel based on the now discounted spythriller thesis that the person who both set up the coup and knocked it down was the head of Spanish intelligence, Major José Luis Cortina. However, Cercas, a novelist whose books have always blurred the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction (to the extent that his last novel, The Speed of Light, recounts the crisis suffered by the author following the huge international success of his previous one, Soldiers of Salamis), ended up concluding that only non-fiction could do full justice to the ‘shimmering labyrinth’ of 23 February.
Cercas i s one o f Spain’s most cerebral novelists as well as its leading postmodernist. He is a writer who veers at times dangerously close to the s e l f - i ndulgent, and ye t i s always saved by his intellectual lucidity, a compellingly manic prose style character ised by enor mous pa r a g r aphs and sentences, and frequent repetitions that have the effect of recurring themes in a rich and complex symphony. The Anatomy of a Moment (translated by Anne McLean with characteristic brilliance) is his longest and densest work to date. Some readers might well give up in the course of the extended reflections on reality and fiction that form the book’s opening, but those who continue will be rewarded by what comes to seem a mesmerising achievement.
Cercas has produced a remarkably fresh and profound study of 23 February in which the once much debated issue of whether or not the king was acting alone in halting the insurgency (Cercas, like most people, now accepts that he was) is peripheral to the author’s main concern – to interpret what was going on in Suárez’s head as he sat frozen to his seat while bullets whizzed in the air around him. ☛
LITERARY REVIEW February 2011