Chris Bambery welcomes an English translation of Forty Lost Years, a classic Catalan novel of revolution and civil war in Catalonia of the 1930s
This wonderful novel begins with joyous celebration. It is April 1931, local elections have taken place across the Spanish state. The Spanish King and the hapless military dictator, Dámaso Berenguer, had expected to win as usual because elections were rigged as usual. But this time something happened; in the cities republican and left parties united and ensured the elections were relatively free. The result was they won, but in the countryside it was a different story. King Alfonso realised the game was up and fled into exile. A Spanish Republic was declared.
Forty Lost Years is set in Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, and here events took a slightly different turn. The winner of the elections was the pro-independence Esquerra Republicana Catalunya (Catalan Left Republicans). Their leader, Francesc Macià, addressed the crowds outside the Generalitat, traditional seat of Catalan government, declaring Catalan independence within a broader Iberian Federation of nations.
The central figure in this novel is Laura Vidal, a seamstress in a workshop producing high fashion women’s clothes. Laura comes from a poor working-class family. Her father is a furniture maker, but cannot afford the furniture he makes and is a member of the anarcho-syndicalist union federation, the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, National Federation of Labour), her mother is a concierge and they all squeeze into the tiny flat which goes with that job, including Laura’s elder sister and brother.
On the day Macià declared a Catalan Republic, Laura and her best friend, Hermínia, arrive at the workshop to find the owner has vanished, clearly nervous about how matters will unfold. The women ask the manager for the day off and she hesitantly agrees.
Laura and Hermínia go off into the city centre, which has exploded with joy. Catalan flags have appeared on public buildings, people wave them along with flowers and shout slogans: ‘Visca la República Catalana’ (Long Live the Catalan Republic). Laura and her friend get on a tram crisscrossing the centre of the city waving flags and shouting slogans.
Living through revolution
Marx once said all revolutions begin with flowers but that’s not how they end. Forty Lost Years is a tribute to that. Laura has hopes things will be for the better, and that the new Republic might take its time but would bring improvements. The first government of the Spanish Republic, made up of liberals and republicans, did give women the vote, the right to divorce and equal access to education – prior to that schools had been segregated by gender.
Yet, it was suspicious of Catalan aspirations, championing the unity of Spain, and moved quickly to send a delegation to Barcelona to negotiate a deal with the ERC whereby they dropped independence in return for limited autonomy. In the novel, Laura’s father is angry over this, reflecting the fact that many Catalan members of the CNT (Catalonia was its stronghold) were sympathetic to independence. Certainly Laura is, liking to dance the sardana, the Catalan national dance, though Hermínia is the better dancer. She learns a suggested new Catalan national anthem off by heart. The book brings alive the relative sexual freedom of Barcelona in the 1930’s. Laura is not out to marry and curry bourgeois respectability. She wants to make her own life.
The author, Rosa Maria Arquimbau, was a Catalan writer, journalist, and a feminist active in the ERC. She was president of the Front Únic Femení Esquerrista (United Front of Women from the Left), where along with other feminists she campaigned in favour of the new Catalan Statute of Autonomy because it would give votes to women as well as autonomy for Catalonia.
Many republicans and those on the left opposed giving women the franchise because they believed they were under clerical control and accordingly follow the instructions of their priest to vote for the right, but not Arquimbau, nor Francesc Macià, who spoke at rallies for women alongside Rosa Maria and her sisters. An excellent pen portrait of Arquimbau by Juliá Guillamon is included in this new edition.
The novel starts in 1931 and closes in the final years of the Franco dictatorship, hence the title. This is a time of great events, especially the Civil War that followed the military uprising in July 1936 aiming to topple the elected Republican government, which ended with General Franco’s victory. These events form a background and don’t dominate.
Living with defeat
Laura uses her wits to become an independent haute couture designer, producing dresses for the wealthy. However, in January 1939 as the Francoist army approaches Barcelona, she flees, along with Hermínia and her elder sister and her husband, finding shelter in Perpignan. An attempt to travel to Mexico to find asylum ends in the Vichy French authorities returning them to Perpignan from North Africa.
Eventually they all return to Barcelona to pick up the pieces but Laura’s hopes which start this novel are, aside from carving out a career as a dressmaker, dashed in a society where women have been returned to second-class citizens, sexual freedom is dead as are Catalan aspirations; Franco burnt Catalan books and journals when he took Barcelona and banned public use of the language. Laura also despises the greed, materialism and full blooded enthusiasm for capitalism that the dictatorship champions. Hermínia has married a Francoist black marketer, not out of love but because he can make her a ‘lady’. Laura sees hope in her nephew and a new generation unburdened with defeat.
Clearly, Arquimbau, who wrote this book at the close of the 1960s while still in exile, shares the view that the Franco years were lost ones. She lived until 1991 and saw her book published in 1971 in Catalan.
Her writing is to the point but absolutely clear and with a dry wit. It’s helped in its first English translation by Peter Bush’s crystal clear translation. The issues it deals with are far from being resolved. The British-Catalan publishers, Fum d’Estampa (the Catalan phrase describing the steam from a hot metal press) do us a service in bringing us this Catalan novel, with others set to follow.
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Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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