Andrew McDougall reviews Forty Lost Years by Rosa Maria Arquimbau for BookBlast.
In translating the novel Forty Lost Years into English, Fum d’Estampa Press and Peter Bush have gifted Anglophone readers a forgotten gem of twentieth century fiction that not only offers us a fresh view on the effects of the Spanish Civil War, the ensuing exile many were forced into and Franco’s dictatorship, but also a text which remains strikingly relevant and present.
First published in Catalan as Quaranta anys perduts in 1971, and enjoying a second wind when republished in 2016, Forty Lost Years is narrated by Laura Vidal and covers forty years of her life, starting in the 1930s when she is a young adolescent.
Laura is an apprentice seamstress in Barcelona when the Civil War breaks out. When a fascist victory looms, she decides to try to make it out while she still can. The road to asylum is not an easy one, but as a working-class feminist, republican and Catalanist, Laura takes her chances. She will one day return from exile and establish her own haute couture business, making dresses for the great and the good of Barcelona’s high society.
“When it rained, I smelt the scent of the earth in a way a senyora never could, and when I lost my temper, I could curse or swear to let off steam without having to feel embarrassed later, and I’d not change that for anything. I promised myself that I’d never stop being like that, my true, natural and spontaneous self.” (p.104)
Her humble background, high-class clientele and liberal attitude to life give her a unique perspective and a window into a cross-section of Catalan society. From her parents who barely have room to move in their cubbyhole flat to black-market dealers to rich businessmen who maintain their mistresses while their wives turn a blind eye.
As we journey with Laura through forty turbulent years, we see her evolve from a naïve and idealistic youth to a world-weary realist, yet she never loses her irreverence and independence of thought. With a strong current of feminism and anti-capitalism, her voice is her own and she sees the world through the prism of her own experiences and values, not through the lens of any party dogma. She often criticises the actions and attitudes of those she considers her own and much of what she says about politicking and coexistence remains as relevant as ever. Her ability to question herself and take a nuanced view is fitting of the richly complex, strong-willed and sympathetic character that Rosa Maria Arquimbau has created.
“How will a whole people ever come to understand each other if eighty of us can’t?” (p.88)
Many of her comments on the greed, envy, materialism and devotion to capitalism that the dictatorship era fostered could easily be applied to modern Western democracies. From the particular vantage point of her profession, she also witnesses with some dismay the emergence of what we would now term “fast fashion”. I wonder what Laura Vidal would make of 2021, where such cultures of extreme consumerism and fabricated need have become so exaggerated.
“…you had to work long hours if you wanted to spend money on lots of items that in my day people would have considered unnecessary, but which people nowadays thought essential.” (p.120)
It is in combining a historical perspective with themes which are so current that this novel particularly triumphs, to the point that it is almost surprising that it was written so long ago. Peter Bush’s agile translation is brilliant to read and handles this situation well, delivering a timeless text in an English that is at once familiar and probes at new possibilities.
‘Do you think we can ever forget all this? Do you think we can ever forgive them?’ (p.90)
Arquimbau’s novel reveals problems which were not resolved with the end of the dictatorship and asks questions which remain unanswered. Laura sees some hope in the youth, in the generation of her nephew, one that sees itself as disconnected from the defeat of their forebears and thus capable of offering a fresh resistance. This is a theme seen in other literature that deals with the period. Laura, however, fears that her nephew and his ilk are all talk, held back by fearful parents. It is never easy to escape from the past.
The past which Spain still cannot escape and still has not fully faced up to, of course, was still the present for Arquimbau and Vidal in 1971. War, exile and dictatorship and warped their early lives, putting families in extreme situations and separating friends and spouses through often arbitrary accidents of fate. The wounds opened in the war were not healed in the years that followed and the debate over whether to forgive or forget has survived into the new century.
“…the world and the future would belong to the youth if they didn’t become cowards prematurely…” (p.121)
While, on the one hand, Forty Lost Years is a celebration of a free-spirited, independent woman at a time when such a thing was hard (or harder) to be, this novel also presents an erosion of optimism, the slow, painful loss of a dream. The progressive Republic and the goal of greater autonomy snatched away by a military coup that continued to mete out punishment for decades. On a personal level, too, Laura becomes embittered and feels left behind and even judged by those who stood by her side in the early days. She sometimes feels isolated and alone in her discontent with the new realities that so many accept or even embrace. In her fifties now, she feels old only because of how others perceive her, but that external view is a powerful one that makes its way into her head.
In many ways Laura was not of her time, a radical at first inspired, and then frustrated, by her surroundings. This may be partly why the novel is still so relatable and, though it speaks to a very specific time and place, it is universal and topical today. Issues such as class, equality and gender roles are at the forefront of this narrative which moves quickly yet has moments of pause as Laura seeks to make sense of the changes around her.
Forty Lost Years is a wonderful find by Fum d’Estampa and one I fully recommend. Beautifully written, complex, bold, enlightening and remarkably relevant, this forgotten gem deserves to be forgotten no more.
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