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Rosa Maria Arquimbau: Quaranta anys perduts (Forty Lost Years)

Rosa Maria Arquimbau was a feminist and Catalan nationalist and those two views are clearly represented in this book, the story of Laura Vidal, born in Barcelona in 1917.

Laura comes from a family that is not very well-off. Her family – her parents, older sister Esperança and younger brother, Pere – live in a cramped Barcelona float, with the parents saving some money by acting as concierges. There are only two bedrooms, so while Pere shared his sisters’ bedroom when younger, he now has to sleep on the floor in his parents’ bedroom.

The father is a furniture maker but he cannot afford any of the furniture he makes. Pere is a a mechanic apprentice, while the two sisters are in the clothing business, with Esperança making corsets and bras. The children have to give all their money to their parents so have no spending money.

Laura supplements her income by making clothes privately but has no space in the her bedroom to give private fittings and is eager to have her own premises. Indeed, the ambition of many of her generation, including her sister, is to have their own shop.

Laura is a very pragmatic woman. She is stalked by a rich, married lawyer but is happy to give him what he wants in return for what she wants, namely a space to start her shop and live away from her parents. Clearly, this is not how her parents think. 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. Clearly, Laura and her generation of Catalan women are going to take a different approach from their parents, an approach that allows them more freedom.

While we are following Laura’s life, we are also following political events. The book starts with Francesc Macià declaring Catalan independence (14 April 1931). Indeed, some of the events are reminiscent of more recent Catalan attempts at obtaining their independence, with both equally doomed to failure. Laura, her family and friends are naturally very enthusiastic. The next major event – the strike of 1934 – does not have a happy outcome.

Interestingly, women had the right to vote in Spain in the 1930s pre-Franco. (Once Franco took over, no-one had the right to vote as there were no elections.) Arquimbau herself was very active in the independence vote.

Of course the main historical event is the start of the Spanish Civil War. Barcelona was soon going to be on the losing side. We follow Laura’s adventures in the Civil War, which include exile, which brings its own problems and her return to post-war Barcelona, though she returns as World War II starts. Though Spain was not directly involved in that war, it did have an effect on the country.

After the Civil War, Spain or, at least Barcelona, became a different place. People were more two-faced and brazen. The standard of living went up. Laura’s rich lawyer friend has now become richer and more powerful but she is not selling her soul too easily. She does, however, get back into the fashion business.

We follow her up to the 1970s and get her (and Aquimbau’s) acerbic comments on her world. A kind of hard-faced attitude dominated the world in which we lived, a blend of hypocrisy and fear . She tells us everyone is either making money or envying those that do. As she gets older (she hears her employees referring to her as old dear), she becomes more cynical, condemning the young as a flock of sheep, always following the herd and showing no independence. (This is prompted to a certain degree by the fact that women seem to prefer off the peg clothes instead of having their clothes made for them.) She remains independent but states life had slipped by very quickly, always in a rush. I’d never been able to stop and savour. In short forty lost years.

Arquimbau tells an excellent feminist tale of a woman who is determined to be independent and do what she wants to do, regardless of the opinion of others. At the same time, it gives us a portrait of Barcelona during a troubled period of its history. The main cause of its problems was the Civil War and the resulting Franco regime. While the Civil War is certainly mentioned, Franco is not, though he did not die till after this book was published, and was an ever-present shadow over Barcelona and Catalonia. Whether Laura, despite everything, did have not a bad life is for the reader to judge, despite her opinion of forty lost years.

First published in 1971 by Club Editor
First published in English in 2021 by Fum d’Estampa
Translated by Peter Bush