Dr. Vincente Pozuelo was ushered into a large, ornately furnished and badly lit drawing room of the official El Pardo Palace residence. On a high-backed, uncomfortable chair, silently and sadly looking out into the garden and into a fading fall evening, sat Francisco Franco, 81, caudillo (leader) of Spain for nearly four decades and definitely ill.

It was at this point that Pozuelo embarked on a therapy that was to keep Franco alive for the next year. The skilled doctor's private day-to-day record, written up as a book, may violate the Hippocratic Oath but it has become compulsive reading, six years later, for an avid Spanish reading public that is neurotically trying to explain and understand its recent past.

Across the room Dona Carmen, Franco's wife, sat stiffly and withdrawn. At attention, behind Franco, stood an aide-de-camp in full army dress uniform. It is, although Pozuelo does not mean it to be like that, a tableau of protocol and alienation, power and decay; as if Goya, resurrected to the 20th Century, had painted it at the height of his penetrating, critical powers. Then comes the ludicrous bit, in which pathos has the edge because what is absurd is patiently tragic.

Baffled about how to bring Franco to life (he was suffering from an advanced Parkinson's disease and had just narrowly survived a deadly phlebitis in his left leg), Pozuelo decides to shock. "Your excellency let me try an experiment," he says as he pulls out a cassette recorder from his black bag and slips in a tape.

The silence is shattered by the strains of a Spanish Foreign Legion marching song, the anthem of the riffraff corps that Franco moulded into an elite fighting machine in the North African wars of the 1920s. "His eyes began to shine," Pozuelo records of his patient. "He pressed his lips together, raised his head, straightened his back . . . a miracle had taken place."

That was the start. As the treatment progressed Pozuelo and Franco took to marching in step around the roof, arm in arm. When they broke off for a rest the doctor patiently probed the generalisimo's memory and Franco demonstrated a blow by blow, a total recall of his youth and early battles. As a rehabilitation therapy Franco even began to tape his memoirs -- two early chapters are included in the book and they give a portrait of someone who was never really young, who already was thinking of how the armed forces should be overhauled.

If one skips the bits about how many ounces of chicken Franco had for his lunch and how many times he passed water during the night, Pozuelo's "The Last 476 Days of Franco," published by Planeta of Barcelona, which has hit the bookstalls in time for this month's Madrid book fair, gives a pretty comprehensive picture of Franco, at home and in government, with his family, his cronies and his ministers.

It is, in short, depressingly dull. When Pozuelo, in the summer of 1974, managed to get Franco back to fitness, and Franco took back power from Prince (now King) Juan Carlos, who had become acting head of state, it was back to the routine of endless audiences in the morning, simple meals with the military aides and long hours watching television indiscriminately. There were no grand fascist designs in the El Pardo bunker, certainly no wit and no sparkle.

Nobody ever claimed that Franco was an intellectual. But Pozuelo's detailed records shows that there was an almost total lack of curiosity, criticism and debate in the entourage of the generalisimo. If Spain was run like a cross between an army camp and a medieval monastery it was not really due to a carefully worked out ideological program. It's just that that is exactly what Franco, and those he gathered about him, understood and never questioned.

As the infant democracy that replaced Francoism weathers the assaults of terrorism, inflation and political mismanagement, Spaniards are obsessed with Franco: "the long dark night," as some see it, "the time when we lived better," as do others. Between the lines, Pozuelo's book says that Franco did not have the temperament to be a demagogic tyrant; nor did he have the talent to be a nation-builder.

At one point Franco tells Pozuelo that what he'd really like to do is to spend the last 10 years of his life in a monastery and live as a monk. Pozuelo believes him. Franco was indeed a puritanical Catholic. His mother, who deeply influenced him, was very devoute; his wife Dona Carmen, very strait-laced; his whole experience was military and he was, as a result, bigoted, ordinary and homespun.

The left wing in Spain has a neurosis about how Franco survived in power, how no one could get rid of him, how he lasted so long, how he lived to die of old age and illness in his bed. Perhaps they were tilting at windmills. Liberty of expression, trade union rights, political parties, the great issues of the Franco opposition were simply non-issues as far as the Franco that emerges in the book is concerned. They never bothered him because they did not enter his concept of the order of things."I know nothing about politics," Franco tells the author, and one certainly believes that.

There is no surprise ending. It is the long death watch as a cold became pneumonia, a slight heart trouble became a succession of attacks and ulcers broke out and bled. For more than a month a team of doctors, Pozuelo leading them, strove to keep him alive.

Why did they prolong the agony? Pozuelo never asks himself that. Pozuelo and the team just kept on operating, putting in more tubes and using different drugs.

It is, however, a legitimate question. In his few moments of lucidity, Franco, in great pain, whispers, "How difficult it is to die." And Pozuelo records it.