My second read for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month is a very different beast from my first; that was early in the month, with the intriguing but baffling “Two Stories” from Sublunary Editions. Today’s book also comes from an indie publisher – Fum D’Estampa – and is a wonderful account of life in Barcelona during the middle of the 20th century. “Forty Lost Years” by Rosa Maria Arquimbau is translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush, and has won an English PEN Award; and in many ways it seems like a bit of a miracle that it’s made it into English at all.

Arquimbau is a somewhat obscure figure; a Catalan writer, journalist, feminist, and suffragist, she was regarded as a major novelist in the 1930s. A prolific journalist, she often wrote on what were controversial subjects for a woman in the Spain of the time; and she was also a prominent figure in left-wing politics. During the fascist dictatorship, which lasted a large part of her life, she was persecuted and outlawed, and it’s only recently that her work has been rediscovered in her home country; according to Fum D’Estampa, this is largely due to the efforts of journalist and writer, Julia Guillamon, and the latter provides a moving coda to the novel.

“Forty Lost Years”, first published in 1971, is narrated by Laura Vidal; we first encounter her in the 1930s when she’s in her early teens and starting to make her way in the world. She comes from a poor family; they live in a ‘concierge cubbyhole’ and her father makes furniture at a workshop; and Laura is quite naive, relying on her elder sister Esperanca, plus friends Herminia and Engracia, to guide her in the ways of the world. But the world she lives in is changing, and as Laura starts working as a seamstress, gradually working her way up in her trade, the Catalan Republic is created and then lost, the Spanish Civil War takes place, World War Two comes and goes, Franco’s dictatorship continues. The eyes of Laura see and reflect the changes; from the idealism of those wishing to make the world a better place to those only concerned with making money and having power; and Laura’s ideals are crushed as she struggles to keep pace with the changes and make sure she earns enough to support herself and her family. As she reaches middle age and onwards, she reflects back on her forty lost years, wondering if her struggles to stay free have been worth it – and what lies next for her is not clear.

…I realized that morality is elastic and that you can stretch it this way or that according to individual need and that the poor who can allow themselves to lead strict moral existences are the exception.

This is why I love translators and translated literature and indie publishers. If it wasn’t for them, I never would have had the chance to read this marvellous book, and it really has lodged in my heart. Arquimbau writes in deceptively economic prose, taking us through the years quickly, witnessing the changes around Laura and exploring the latter’s emotions. Vidal is a compelling character – strong, independent, determined to succeed on her own terms, she has no compunction about using men as necessary to get what she needs. But this is never portrayed as gratuitous as she has her own moral standards; and her refusal to marry for convenience and status sets her against most of her contemporaries. Yet as she finds out, she is capable of love – although perhaps not with the best timing.

Times had changed. A kind of hard-faced attitude dominated the world in which we lived, a blend of hypocrisy and fear.

As a backdrop to Laura’s tale there is the constantly changing political landscape. Cleverly, Arquimbau doesn’t allow this to dominate the story; instead, the events happening in Spain and the wider world affect Laura’s life, but she’s allowed to adapt to them and make her way onward as best she can. There’s a section of the narrative where Laura goes into exile, in the early part of WW2, and she ends up trying to escape Europe like so many did; being caught between the Germans moving through France and the fascist regime of her own country must have been hellish. As she moves around Oran, I was reminded very much of Victor Serge’s descriptions of his own flight from Europe to Mexico; and if Laura’s attempt to flee is based on Arquimbau’s own life then she might well have encountered him had she succeeded in getting away.

Disillusion had made me what I was, a woman who had seen the world and felt hollow inside and expected nothing from life. None of what makes living feel like what you would call ‘life’. Where had my youthful zest gone? Or my hopes of a better world? And my wish to fight? And my desire for justice? What had become of my ideals?

“Forty Lost Years” quite brilliantly captures the passing time, no mean feat in only 137 pages. As well as being a record of her times, the book is also the story of a woman’s life and the changes she undergoes, finding herself suddenly regarded as an old bag when she doesn’t feel like one. The feminist in Arquimbau/Vidal shines through as she refuses to take the easy path; although what the rest of Laura’s life will bring her, we’ll never know.

So my second read for Spanish and Portuguese Lit month turned out to be absolutely brilliant, and I really don’t know why this wonderful author hasn’t been translated before. The book comes with a poignant epilogue by Julia Guillamon, exploring Arquimbau’s life, and this includes some evocative photographs which really enhance the narrative of the book itself as well as giving some insight into what Arquimbau had to deal with. Engrossing, inspiring and unforgettable, “Forty Lost Years” is a powerful and often emotional read which takes you through the highs and lows of a woman living through dramatic times. The perfect read for Spanish and Porguguese Lit Month, and a book I highly recommend – kudos to Fum D’Estampa, Peter Bush, Julia Guillamon and all concerned!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)