Forty Lost Years, by Rosa Maria Arquimbau (translated by Peter Bush), tells the story of a woman born and raised in Barcelona during the turbulent years of the mid twentieth century, when Catalonia suffered insurrection, war and fascism. It is not a political book but rather one of how ordinary lives were affected by authoritarian change. The author lived through this time and, in an epilogue written by Julià Guillamon, it is suggested that she wrote her own experiences into her central character. This is not memoir but offers a portrayal of lived history.
The tale opens in 1931 when the protagonist, Laura Vidal, is fourteen years old. She lives with her parents and siblings in the cramped quarters provided for the concierge of their building – her mother’s job. Her father works for a furniture maker but money is tight. Laura has recently become an apprentice seamstress at an up-market workshop, along with her good friend, Herminia. Following elections, the president has proclaimed the Republic of Catalonia leading to widespread if short-lived celebrations.
Laura has little interest in these wider events being more concerned with her day to day existence and social life. She is frustrated by the limitations placed on her through lack of money and parental demands that she conduct herself with decorum. She is impatient to acquire womanly curves, to grow up and gain independence. Although developing an interest in boys, she draws little attention.
The story follows Laura, her family and friends over the coming four decades. There are times of hardship when food is scarce and the young men, required to complete military service, are endangered by numerous conflicts. Laura is ambitious but requires backers if she is to set up the business she dreams of. Throughout her life she retains a pragmatic approach to securing what she needs.
There are marriages, babies, affairs and deaths as the years pass. In their twenties, Laura and Herminia leave Spain along with many other refugees in an attempt to relocate to Mexico. The trials faced in this period are described in the epilogue as autobiographical in nature. Eventually, Laura returns to Barcelona where she prospers in the opulent post-war years.
In many ways Laura is fortunate, finding those who are willing to help her when she is hungry or in need of accommodation. She works hard and feels no need to rely on a partner, noting the compromises married acquaintances must make. In her fifties, however, she observes how younger women now regard her and feels regret at some of her decisions.
The spare prose offers little emotion yet succeeds in drawing the reader in. The portrayal of an independent woman as she navigates her way from naive teenager to successful business owner is rendered engagingly. Laura occasionally faces criticism from her family and friends but, despite this, mostly acts as she sees fit. Given her earlier approach to life – her attitude towards other’s expectations of her – I was surprised by the denouement, that she was so affected by what is natural aging. Her reaction to others’ opinion appeared out of character, or maybe this is also a change that comes with age.
Certain sections of dialogue could flow better – I wondered at some of the translator’s choices of spoken words – but this may be true to the region. Encounters with the young idealists who then turn to profiteering offer a reminder that principles are rarely fixed.
An enjoyable read set in a time of great change that refuses to pander to a stoicism that so often veneers survivors who are later regarded as worldly successes. The characters portrayed here have flaws as well as strengths, and this adds to their depth.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum D’Estampa Press.