“Forty Lost Years” by Rosa Maria Arquimbau

“Forty Lost Years” by Rosa Maria Arquimbau first appeared in the author’s native Catalonia in 1971, when General Francisco Franco remained dictator of Spain. It has now appeared in English for the first time, ably translated by Peter Bush.

The novel centres on Laura Videl, born in 1917 who comes from a working class family in Barcelona. Her, her parents, younger brother, Pere, and older sister, Esperança, live in a crowded flat in a building where her mother is the concierge. With just two rooms Pere when younger shared his sisters’ bedroom but on reaching adolescence has to sleep on the floor of his parents’ bedroom.

The father is a furniture maker (who cannot afford the furniture he makes) and is a member of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (National Confederation of Labour; CNT) the militant anarcho-syndicalist union federation which dominated the Catalan working class in 1910’s, 1920’s and 1930’s, but he is also a supporter of the creation of an independent Catalan Republic.

It’s often cited that the CNT was opposed to all nationalisms (it did not engage in the debates on the national question which dominated the socialist then the communist movements at the beginning of the last century), and famously held its meetings in Spanish not Catalan so as to include migrants from Spain. But it was also the case that its Catalan members were strongly influenced by the rise of a pro-independence movement in the 1920’s, reading its press and even voting for the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, despite the CNT’s frequent calls for a boycott of elections.

The novel is set against real life events, starting on the 14 April 1931 with the declaration of a Catalan Republic by the ERC’s leader, Francesc Maciá. Fourteen year old Laura is working as a seamstress in a dressmaking workshop. But on that day no-one works and they all, including Laura’s best friend, Hermínia, join the crowds on the streets celebrating, heading to the Rambla to party. There a man tells them:

“When Maciá came out it seemed the world would collapse, the applause was so thunderous… He said victory was know an undeniable fact and the country was proclaiming the Republic of Catalonia, and that it would open its arms to the other fraternal republics of Iberia.”

When another man tells Laura that Maciá had declared “a broad federation of free nationalities,” she responds, “I like that a lot.” So does Hermínia.”

The two girls then get on a tram crisscrossing the city shouting from the top deck, “Visca la República, Visca la República Catalana!”

Yet disappointment soon follows. Laura’s father reads a paper borrowed from the man in an upstairs flat:

“ ‘Those three federal ministers have arrived and its changed everything.’

‘Oh,’ said my brother, Pere, ‘how come?’

‘Because it says that “after deliberations in the Palace of the Generalitat [the Catalan government], the ministers in the Madrid government, the Catalan government and the Barcelona authorities have issued a note defining the temporary nature of the political situation in Barcelona”.’

‘And what does that mean?’

‘Only that they have snatched away our Republic of Catalonia.’”

For both young women there is a strong sense that everything will change for the better, for everyone, for women and for themselves. That life is not going to be like what it was for their mothers, a sense of liberation, as Laura states:

“Did her mother think that she was going to find what they call a good lad and court him for seven years in a row before being able to marry? It was futile her suggesting that to me because the prospect didn’t tempt me one bit.”

So when a rich, married lawyer turns his attention to her, a man she does not fancy, she enters the relationship on the basis he will provide the money so she can become an independent dressmaker, and move to a two bedroom flat allowing her customers to try on her dresses. Thus, Laura moves into the world of haute couture.

The book is a sharp read, but very lucid, and witty in a dry sort of way.

Events move fast so the attempt in 1934 declare Catalonia independence, and the immediate repression inflicted by the Spanish state occur quickly in the book, leaving tragic consequences for Hermínia and her family.

It then moves on to the outbreak of the Civil War in July 1936 with the military uprising to overthrow the new republican Spanish government. In early 1939, with Franco’s army nearing Barcelona, Laura together with her sister, Esperança (whose husband is away with the Republican army), Hermínia and her husband flee across the border settling in Perpignan. Life in exile is hard and gets harder with the outbreak of the Second World War and the subsequent Nazi occupation of France. Esperança soon returns to Barcelona, and the other three try to find haven in Mexico, taking ship but only getting as far as Morocco from where they are forced back to France.

Eventually Hermínia decides to marry an old black marketeer back in Barcelona, part of the new, corrupt Francoist elite. There is no love involved in her decision she just wants to be a lady and to give up work.

Eventually Laura too returns to her home city and sets up as a dressmaker, doing well. By the end of the novel we are into the late 1960’s. Laura dislikes the harder edged, more commercial world. As women start wearing off the peg clothes she moves into making them running her own workshop where one day she is shocked to overhear her employees calling her that “old dear.”

I shall not give way the final twist in this novel but Laura at the end regards the years since she was 14 and celebrating Macia’s declaration of independence as lost years, thus the title. But she retains her independence.

This is not a Civil War novel. That features in the book but is not central. But it is a book which will help in understanding Catalonia and its recent history. Above all it contrasts the hopes and achievements registered in the years between 1931 and the outbreak of the Civil War with the grim reality of the Franco dictatorship.

The author, Rosa Maria Arquimbau (1909 – 1992), is a fascinating figure and Juliá Guillamon’s the brief but scintillating  essay on her life that concludes “Forty Lost Years” leaves me desperate to find out more about her. Arquimbau was a feminist and a member of the pro-independence Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, who in 1931, during the referendum to approve the Statute of Autonomy granted by the new Spanish Republic, campaigned in favour of it stressing it granted votes to women, distributing leaflets and speaking along with other feminist figures and with the ERC’s leader, Francesc Maciá, at rallies across the nation.

She worked as a journalist on various Catalan papers and magazines and wrote short stories, novels, dramas, comedies, essays, and poetry.

Like Laura she was fiercely independent, determined to make her own way in the world, in no hurry to marry and sexually liberated.

All of this ensured that after Arquimbau fled Catalonia for France before Franco’s forces conquered it in January 1939, at the close of the Spanish Civil War, the fascist regime included her on their hit list with the fascist party, the Falange, declaring that:

“The said is categorised as an element with leftist ideas.

During the Uprising [sic] she affected massive propaganda in favour of the Marxists. The worst moral behaviour.”

I am sure Arquimbau would have regarded that as a badge of honour.

Guillamon has unearthed photographs of Arquimbau, in which you can see the same sense of independence that characterises Laura, and a drawing of a 1931 rally, urging “Women: Vote,” and showing Arquimbau in a polka dot dress and wide brimmed hat at the very front.

“Forty Lost Years” is a novel I thoroughly recommend. Its published by the Catalan-British publishers, Fum d’Estampa Press, it refers to the smoke or dust that came off the metal blocks of type that were used in the old printing presses, whose vision is “Catalan literature. In English. Beautiful poetry, inspiring stories, new perspectives.” I’ll drink to that.

Buy it here.


Comments (2)

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  1. Jim says:

    Thanks for the review Chris I want to read the book. Remember the old days in the Railway Tavern in Motherwell? How times change. Jim

  2. Greum Maol Stevenson says:

    Fascinating review of a book and author I hadn’t heard of before. I’m an admirer of Mr Bamberry’s book A People’s History of Scotland.

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