Forty Lost Years

Rosa Maria Arquimbau was a Catalan writer whose career was disrupted by the Spanish Civil War and the years of dictatorship which followed. Born in 1909, she began publishing short stores as a teenager, and worked as a journalist during the early 1930s while also writing novels and plays. Politically active, she was driven into exile after the Republican defeat and publication became increasingly difficult, particularly with the banning of the Catalan language. Forty Lost Years is one of two novels she published in the 1970s as restrictions eased. The novel opens with the declaration of the Catalan Republic in 1931 and covers the forty years of the title to the time of publication.

The central character is Laura Vidal, a seamstress from a poor family, who is fourteen when the novel opens, slightly younger than the author. Though an obvious comparison for the novel is Merce Rodereda’s In Diamond Square, which has also been translated by Peter Bush, Laura reminded me much more of the protagonists of another writer who wrote about the experiences of young women struggling to survive in the thirties, Irmgard Keun. If anything, Laura is tougher than Keun’s narrators, as is quickly evident:

“…I never cried, not when I was a kid, not even when I got a slap for doing something naughty. I never ever cried.”

Like them, she has a lust for life, and, though she sees herself as a “skinny kid”, wears bright red lipstick out of her family’s sight, and dreams of buying high heels. Above all, she longs for freedom:

“I wanted to grow up once and for all and be a woman. To be able to do whatever I wanted. And not to have to ask permission to do everything. To be free.”

Unlike her friend, Herminia, however, her ambition is not to marry and have children, but to set up her own fashion house. Where Kuen’s characters can be cynical regarding men, they still face the danger of falling in love; Laura’s approach is practical rather than romantic: “I think trial marriages should be allowed;” she tells Herminia, “besides, why can’t women have the same freedom as men?” When she attracts the attention of a married man, Tomas, (it is now 1934 – the years passing can often be measured by the political events in the background) she is again practical (“Letting him love me, I reckoned, wouldn’t be so hard”) and allows him to sleep with her:

“After the first few, quite unpleasant moments, I decided it was overrated, and not worth the fuss.”

However, she continues the affair, allowing Tomas to pay for a flat for her so she can move out and start her dress-making business. In her view, “Morality was exclusively followed by the poor because they had no choice.”

When the civil war begins, conditions in Barcelona deteriorate and food becomes scarce. Laura is helped by a ‘patrol gang lad’ who brings her potatoes and flour but when he asks to marry her, she tells him, “Let’s keep things simple, kid.” Eventually she leaves Spain, as so many did, for France, with Herminia and her sister, Engracia. (Plans to emigrate further to Mexico are hampered by officialdom halfway and, for a time, she is stranded in Morocco). In France she once again enters into a practical arrangement with a man:

“I got on with Francesc. I mean we got on in a special way. He seemed to need my affection, and I needed his flat.”

It is not that Laura uses the men in her life – her relationships do not feel cynically one-sided – but she is ruled by her head rather than her heart, seeing them as contracts where both parties benefit. It is Engracia who becomes cynical – after he first husband dies, she marries a wealthy man twenty years older. Laura values her freedom too much, telling Tomas on her return to Barcelona, when he asks if she has a boyfriend:

“I don’t and have not wish to have one, provided I can work and earn my own living.”

Even when she does fall in love with a young journalist, who does not feel the same, her will power is such that she carries on regardless of how she is feeling. “It took all my strength,” she tells us, “to get over being ditched.” By this point she is a successful fashion designer and businesswoman, but we sense that the ‘forty lost years’ are not only those of Spain’s suffering, but of her own lack of emotional fulfilment.

Forty Lost Years may only be 140 pages long, but it has the feel of an epic, covering not only the turbulent history of Catalonia over that time, but the astonishing journey of its central character from little more than a child to a successful, independent woman. Laura’s determination to survive, and remain free, is inspiring, but also touches on the personal sacrifices that she must make. There have been fifty lost years as we have awaited for this wonderful novel to be translated into English.

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5 Responses to “Forty Lost Years”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I thought it was great too, Grant, and interesting you should compare Keun because that was who I thought of too when I read this. The book really got under my skin.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I’m fascinated by your comparison to Keun – that’s a point which has definitely piqued my interest in reading this book! I’m also wondering about possible parallels with Carmen Laforet’s Nada, particularly in terms of the setting and the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Is this a book you would recommend to me, Grant? I’m guessing ‘yes’, but it’s worth being sure!

  3. lauratfrey Says:

    This sounds really good! I don’t know the other books you referenced, but I read Nada by Carmen Laforet many years ago, set in roughly the same time and place I think, and with a young woman protaganist. I don’t remember the heroine being so pragmatic though!

    • 1streading Says:

      No, it’s definitely a defining characteristic of Laura that she is very practical – but perhaps that is one way in which the years are ‘lost’.

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