A review of Forty Lost Years by Rosa Maria Arquimbau, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush
Read just a few pages of Forty Lost Years and you’ll find it hard not to fall in love with Laura Vidal. Fourteen years old and an apprentice dressmaker, the narrator of Rosa Maria Arquimbau’s overlooked masterpiece has a distinctive voice that sparkles with wit, perceptiveness and gumption worthy of a fairy-tale heroine. Over the course of this concise but powerful novel, as we follow Laura from youth into middle age, her narrative never once loses these defining qualities, making it both insightful and a total pleasure to read.
Having finished the excellent afterword by Julià Guillamon, an illustrated biographical essay on Arquimbau, it is hard not to think of Laura as the author’s thinly veiled alter ego, particularly in terms of character. While Arquimbau was not herself a dressmaker – a novelist, playwright, essayist and journalist, she was also a political activist and heavily involved in Catalonia’s female suffrage movement, a calling that would eventually send her into exile – she seems to have been a woman of extraordinary determination and courage, not to mention formidable intellect and humour. Laura is all these things, too, a veritable whirlwind of energy whose story rips us along at a breathtaking pace, reflecting both the rapidly changing society in which she finds herself living and, on a more universal plane, the way in which a human life can appear to pass in the mere blink of an eye.
On the cusp of adulthood, Laura and her best friend Hermínia experience the dizzying joy of the Second Republic, when Catalan was proclaimed an independent state by Francesc Macià. Swept up in the public celebrations, the excitement and sense of possibility is infectious, leaping off the page in Peter Bush’s lively translation to lend even the reader a profound feeling of hope. Yet just a couple of chapters later – the novel runs to barely 130 pages – the liberation of youth has been crushed, and as the Francoist dictatorship sets in, Laura and her friends are forced into exile in France. An ill-fated attempt to flee to Mexico is based, we later learn, on a real episode from Arquimbau’s life, and in its nightmarish aspect provides a powerful insight into the refugee experience – the confusion, the fear, the powerlessness in the face of authority. Returning many years later to an almost unrecognisable Barcelona, Laura continues her work as a dressmaker, profiting like many others from the free-spending attitude that pervades a society suddenly liberated from the constraints of war.
Catalonian history is complex, but to her credit Arquimbau doesn’t make much effort to explain it in detail (we also have to take her original audience into account: Forty Lost Years was first published in 1971 in Catalan). What the novel does, however, is far better than any history lesson – through carefully placed dialogue and an array of vivid characters, it conveys a tangible sense of how it felt to live through a period that taught people like Laura how ‘morality is elastic’. Narrated at top speed – the pace never once slackens – events in this novel are firmly secondary to feelings. Confusion, loss, bitterness, pragmatism, but above all an ever-recurring sense of hope are the mainstays of Arquimbau’s writing, which is a masterclass in strong characterisation and putting atmosphere well before plot.
Though no doubt hardened by her experiences – constant flight, an often unstable income, separation from family, and unhealthy relationships with men like Tomás, a wealthy, married lawyer whom she later deems ‘an influential moron’ – Laura is nevertheless the kind of woman to give as good as she gets. This is one of the most delightful things about her (and the entire novel), coming through again and again in scenes in which she puts men firmly in their place, advocates the idea of trial marriage, is extraordinarily underwhelmed by sex, and takes exactly what she requires from her relationships: ‘He seemed to need my affection, and I needed his flat.’ Excessive female emotion is a topic that crops up regularly throughout the narrative, perhaps a satirical reflection of Arquimbau’s own experiences as a staunch feminist who was eventually convicted of ‘the worst moral behaviour’ (advocating women’s suffrage) by the Francoist regime. ‘It seemed incredible anyone could manufacture so many tears,’ says Laura rather scathingly of her sister Esperança when war separates her from her husband; and later, of herself, quite simply: ‘I wasn’t the kind of woman to cry’. Indeed, she is not, and this trait adds a refreshing air to what could – if we were to go on events alone – be an extremely disheartening novel.
While she never drops her pragmatic approach, with the exception of a few weighty statements – ‘we were an ill-fated people, and it came as news to me because I was so young’ – it is in the final lines of the novel that the cracks really start to show in Laura’s tough exterior. Forty Lost Years ends on quite a different note to the one on which it began, the spark within our gutsy narrator suddenly extinguished by a doomed romance. Gone is the fourteen-year-old with her whole life ahead of her, even the middle-aged woman who has seen far too much yet still feels herself in a position to muse: ‘if you water dashed hopes, perhaps [. . .] they grow back and blossom’. Following a conversation with her sister and niece, who tell her she is ridiculous to consider marrying a younger man at the age of fifty-four, Laura looks in a shop window to find her familiar image replaced by ‘an old woman who’d dared cherish hopes. Maybe for the last time’. For a novel that has lived from its spiritedness and unrelenting sense of hope no matter the circumstances, this is a dramatic turn, a savage move on the part of an author who seems suddenly weary of her story and disillusioned with politics and society more broadly.
The tragic note on which Forty Lost Years ends forces a reflection on life in general – how quickly it passes, how events can seem to control us, how easy it is to get swept up in a story then suddenly realise it’s over. From having looked specifically at Catalonia, Arquimbau’s novel suddenly becomes universal, and the reader – this one, at least – is left feeling rather bereft, not to mention a niggling sense of unease. With the world currently going through a period of free-fall, the first English-language publication of Forty Lost Years feels like a very timely translation, giving us a novel that is big-hearted yet cautionary, as generous as it is ultimately poignant.
Forty Lost Years by Rosa Maria Arquimbau, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush, is published by Fum d’Estampa Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.