The political is personal–and literary

If you are interested in the politics and feminist movement of post-Franco Spain, chances are you already know the work of author and activist Lidia Falcón. If you don’t, you should. Throughout her novel No Turning Back (Camino sin retorno), the protagonist, Elisa Vilaró, a former political prisoner, is confronted with questions about the relationship between the political and the personal. As a reader, I find myself considering the political and the literary.

From a literary standpoint, this is not a perfect novel, maybe because Falcón had content she wished to include but didn’t find a way to incorporate gracefully into the narrative. But any writer can learn from and be inspired by her masterful treatment of memory and time. I wish US authors felt free to be as fearless as Falcón. In the first section of the novel, Elisa’s memories of prison invade her dreams and occur as intrusive and disturbing flashbacks when she’s awake. Then, during a five-hour conversation with her ex-husband Arnau, Elisa seeks to understand her past as a good little Catholic schoolgirl, an unconditionally loving wife, a committed Communist, a confused feminist, and a woman seeking her share of happiness and peace.

Though Elisa looks back intentionally, her memories are not wholly volitional. A word from Arnau triggers a thought which leads to another memory without any transitions in the text to guide the reader. Whole events and conversations spill out in the midst of their meeting. And so we read about the particular tribulations of women in prison–their pregnancies; a secret abortion; their desperate wait for news of their lovers, some of whom face execution–and how after release through a political amnesty, they can be adrift without the solidarity and political faith that once gave them strength. As Elisa remembers how she was confronted with doubts about the Party and about Arnau, the reader is simply carried along, often uncertain for a moment who is speaking or when or to whom. So what? You just keep reading and it all makes sense. It works.

As for the political aspect of the novel, many readers may be less than engaged in parsing out the ideological differences among various leftwing factions and splinter groups and tendencies. But many will smile, as I did, at Elisa who daydreams through some of the interminable, pointless meetings.

While the very specific context of post-Franco Spain can’t be glibly equated to the experiences of other countries undergoing the so-called “transition to democracy,” Falcón’s novel still holds up a mirror to upheavals occurring today. During decades of repressive dictatorship when an opposition has to operate clandestinely and armed resistance seems the only option, what happens after the dictator dies or falls? Is it possible to compromise in the name of national unity and peace? What if bourgeois democracy was never the opposition’s goal? Is the armed struggle revolution or is it terrorism? What reinforces an insurgent’s faith and what shakes it? Is the leadership in touch with life at the grassroots? Do slogans reflect reality? Who can you trust? Who is betrayed?

Here in the US., once Franco died, I’d blithely assumed that Spain was “free.” I had no idea of the struggles and uncertainty that followed. This novel opened my eyes.

A disclosure: I know Jessica Knauss as a very astute and intelligent editor. What I didn’t know–because she never told me–is that she is also a literary translator. When I came across No Turning Back, she confessed, yes, the translation was her work. I am grateful to her for making this novel available in English.

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