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Esther Tusquets: Para no volver (Never to Return)

The title of this novel comes from Rubén Darío’s poem Canción de Otoño en Primavera which you can see here in English translation (scroll down to the fourth poem), translated as Autumn Song in Spring. The poem, the opening lines of which appears as a foreword, shows clearly that this book is about a farewell to youth. Elena, the main character, is just reaching fifty and feeling it. She is concerned about many things – her looks fading, empty nest syndrome, her husband’s lover and who she is. The book is told in an apparent stream of consciousness style, though told in the third person, as Elena recounts her problems to her psychiatrist to whom she gives a variety of nicknames (such as The Magus, Stone Face, Poker Face), who says very little in response to her. (The front cover of the book has a photo of Freud’s couch.)

Elena’s two sons, Pablo and Jorge, have left home. Pablo is in Germany, married to a woman Elena cannot stand, who reminds her of a Disneyland cartoon character. Jorge is studying in Rome. Her husband, Julio, is a famous film director who is currently in New York, probably with his lover, a younger woman. She sees herself not so much as a person but as the wife of a famous film director. More than once she imagines headlines in the newspaper where she appears solely because she is his wife. For example, she goes to a gallery to have some pictures framed and almost loses her temper with the woman serving her, who seems to be over-meticulous. She is tempted to lash out and then imagines the subsequent headlines – Wife of famous film director…. Elena hates being alone in the house and goes out a lot, e.g. to the cinema, preferably to a cinema in a district where she will not recognised. The films make her cry but she is given to crying.

Llora ahora con frecuencia, con mayor frecuencia que en cualquier otra etapa de su vida anterior, desde que algo en su interior ha sido dinamitado y han sido catapultados los pedazos a los más remotos extremos del universo, y nada ni nadie podrá ir a recuperarlos [She now cries frequently, more frequently than at any other time in her life, since something inside her has been blown up and the pieces have been catapulted to the farthest ends of the universe and nothing and no-one will be able to go and get them back.]

She is not always alone. She has a lover, Eduardo but he is very sexist. Es inútil que pretendáis ser iguales que los hombres, hay cosas que una mujer no podrá hacer nunca [It is pointless you claiming to be equal to men; there are things that a woman will never be able to do.] When challenged on what these things might be, the best he can come up with is drawing a figure of eight in urine, while urinating up against a wall. In some respects, he is a pale imitation of Julio, wanting, like Julio to be a success in the United States (he is an artist). She also has a long-standing friend, Andrea, with whom she can complain about the various problems in her life.

She remembers when she was young, when she went, first, to Perpignan, the nearest town across the border, where she and others bought illegal items such as books and contraceptives and saw films banned in Spain. Later she went to Paris, to see Sartre and de Beauvoir have their croissants at the café but also to feel the freedom of French art, culture and politics, which, at the time, had been stifled in Spain under Franco. (She reminds us that her generation were born during the Spanish Civil War and had suffered accordingly.) But now she no longer discusses lofty intellectual matters with her friends but mundane matters such as food and money. Of course, Tusqets is a feminist and this issue comes very much to the fore. Not only is there the issue of her dependency on her husband but also the nature of psychoanalysis. One of her many nicknames for her psychiatrist is Papa Freud and Freud and his theories come in for discussion, as the couch on the cover shows. Freud is often deemed to be phallocentric in his approach to the human mind and it is this that Tusquets dissects, with her critique of concepts such as penis envy and the Oedipus complex.

But, ultimately, this book is about that great literary theme – who are we? Elena tries to find out (and does not really succeed but knows that she has to keep on looking). She knows that, as a woman, it is going to be more difficult, particularly when she is married to a man she calls, somewhat sardonically, Julio the Marvellous. This is a first-class novel on this theme and it is sad that it and the rest of her work are not better known in the English-speaking world. This book is available in English translation and in print in both the UK and USA at the time of writing.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1985 by Editorial Lumen
First published in English 1999 by University of Nebraska Press
Translated by Barbara F. Ichiishi