The Back Room
The Back Room
by Carmen Martín Gaite
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Spain in 1975, reflecting on events from the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) to Franco’s death (1975); published in Spanish (as El cuarto de atrás) in 1978; in English in 1983.
Upon the dictator Francisco Franco’s death, a female novelist recalls her life and experiences under the fascist regime.
Carmen Martín Gaite was born in Salamanca, Spain, on December 8, 1925, “right in the middle of Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship” (Martín Gaite, p. 129). As she describes in her autobiographical novel, The Back Room, she came of age during the Spanish Civil War under the regime of Francisco Franco. Martín Gaite studied at the University of Salamanca and at the University of Madrid, completing a doctoral thesis in Romance Philology. In 1954 she penned her first novel, The Spa, for which she won the Café Gijón Prize, and in 1957 she published Between the Blinds, which focuses on a girl growing up in Franco’s Spain. After completing four more novels, Martín Gaite looked again at Franco’s impact in her masterpiece, The Back Room. A postmodern classic that melds magical realism with historical events, The Back Room reveals the conscious and unconscious influences of Franco’s dictatorship on the author’s life and writing. A kunstleroman (novel of the development of an artist), the novel probes the many influences—including Hollywood, war, Golden Age literature, fantastic literature, and romance novels—that contributed to Martín Gaite’s development as a writer and even explores how she derives the very novel we are reading. Triggered by Franco’s death, the novel serves as both a personal psychological investigation and a social history of the repressive government’s impact on an emerging artist.
The first autarky and the Second Republic
In the 1920s, when Carmen Martín Gaite was born, Spain was still a largely agrarian nation just beginning to industrialize. A recent defeat in the Spanish American War (1898), which signified (at least symbolically) the death of the colonial empire, prompted a major ideological debate over how to restore Spain’s former glory or at least bring the country into the twentieth century. The remedy imposed by dictator General Miguel Primo de Rivera was a system of autarky—an authoritarian, self-reliant government. Spain became a corporate, tightly controlled state like Mussolini’s Italy. The press was censored, civil rights were suspended, and industry was nationalized. Though his tenure was relatively short (1923–30), Primo de Rivera’s model of government and precedent as a dictator had profound, long-term implications. Soon both would be adopted by another, more tenacious general whose rule would greatly transform Spanish society—and Martín Gaite’s life.
Primo de Rivera’s exit gave birth to the Second Republic. The liberal parties of the left were voted into the Cortes (parliament) and ushered in a series of democratic reforms. The Constitution of 1931 granted women the right to vote, and the government promised to redistribute land and wealth among the majority of Spaniards who comprised the lower classes. Highly opposed to the power and wealth of the Catholic Church, the second prime minister, Manuel Azaña, publicly denounced it and declared, “Spain is no longer a Catholic country!” (Azaña in Pierson, p. 138). The government stopped state funding of the Church, converted the country to a system of secular public rather than private Catholic education, and legalized abortion and divorce.
Though the liberals had won a majority in the elections, Spain remained virtually split between two extremes: the far left and the far right. The Church and conservatives, who continued to have strong adherents, were greatly outraged by the new government’s reforms. They had less to fear than one might suspect, however, for the Second Republic proved to be far more competent at passing reforms than implementing them. This frustrated the republic’s supporters. In short, economic and social changes were too weak and slow for the left, too radical and rapid for the right, so that tensions mounted on both sides. These tensions resulted in a general strike by the left in 1934, poorly organized except in Asturias, where the miners effectively led the workers, only to suffer brutal repression at the hands of the army. The left, crushed in the strike, rebounded to win the general election in 1936, with Azaña becoming president of the republic. Positions polarized to the breaking point, impatience grew, and within five years the government of the left was attacked in a coup d’état by the right and the country found itself in the throes of a bloody civil war.
Spanish Civil War—Republicans vs. Nationalists
In broad terms the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) was a fight between Republicans and Nationalists; between the liberal left and the conservative right. Republicans included antifascists, Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, Libertarians, artists, intellectuals, much of the lower classes, atheists, and non-Catholics. Nationalists consisted largely of strong supporters of the Catholic Church and most clergy, the military, the landed classes and nobility, fascists, Falangists, and Carlists (the extreme Catholic right).
With World War II looming, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini saw an advantage in allying themselves with Spain’s Nationalist leader Generalissimo Francisco Franco. He had gained a reputation as a tough military man by fighting campaigns in Morocco on behalf of Spain, and he espoused the familiar fascist rhetoric of the Axis powers. In the summer of 1936, the Army of Africa conducted an uprising in Morocco, touching off uprisings by garrisons throughout Spain the next day. The military coup failed, however, and a full-scale civil war erupted between Republicans (those fighting to maintain the republic) and Nationalists (those fighting to reimpose a conservative, centralized, autocratic government). Mussolini furnished bombers to airlift the Army of Africa over to mainland Spain, beginning a generous program of military aid that would provide the Nationalists with 100,000 Italian troops (Carr, p. 255). While Germany likewise came to the aid of the Nationalists with troops and equipment, the Soviet Union supplied weapons and advisors to the Republicans. As it progressed, the war became a “cause célèbre” of the left in the West, attracting some 40,000 foreign volunteers, who enlisted to fight with the Republicans.
THE ART OF WAR
The Spanish Civil War captured the hearts and imaginations of many of the world’s leading writers, artists, and intellectuals and inspired the creation of some of the world’s artistic masterpieces. Not only did it seem to be a classic struggle between the social classes—the haves versus the have-nots and dogma versus free expression, it also was unfolding in a location easily visible to Western eyes. The murder by Nationalists of world-renowned poet/playwright Federico García Lorca in 1936 no doubt inspired much of this sentiment. It made him a martyr, symbolizing the death of culture and the avant-garde in Europe, and rallying artists and intellectuals worldwide to the Republican cause. America’s Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls,) England’s George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia), and France’s André Malraux (L’Espoir—Man’s Hope) were among the Western writers who joined the Republicans and later immortalized their experiences in famous works. After Lorca’s death, many of Spain’s leading artists fled the country but continued to agitate for change and raise awareness abroad. When the Nazis bombed Guernica—the first time a city was destroyed by aerial bombardment in history—Pablo Picasso painted a masterpiece based on the tragedy. Martín Gaite falls into line with such artists, drawing inspiration from the struggle of the Republicans, attempting to capture and perhaps wrest meaning from the destruction and division.
For three years Spain remained fiercely divided and embattled in war. A “take no prisoners” attitude on both sides prevailed, leading to more deaths after capture than on the battlefield. Teachers, journalists, and labor leaders were executed by Nationalists (more than half of Spain’s university professors were killed); meanwhile, clergy, landlords, and police were executed by
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Republicans. Estimates of the loss of life vary. While the government spoke of one million deaths, recent estimates place the total closer to 500,000 by fighting, bombardment, assassination, and execution. Not included are all of the deaths caused by starvation and disease. Another 200,000 deaths can be attributed to postwar (1939–43) executions and political killings (Beevor, p. 266). In the novel, Martín Gaite’s uncle, a Socialist, was killed during the war, and after the Nationalist victory, she is warned by her family not to discuss it for fear they will be persecuted. As the novel details, the cost of war was far more than demographic loss. The repression and exile after the war of some 350,000, as well as the economic ruin, devastated the nation and particularly those, such as Martín Gaite’s protagonist’s family in the novel, who had sided with Republicans during the war. More than half the housing in Spain was destroyed; industry was left in ruins; and agriculture was largely suspended for three years in many parts of the country.
It has been called “one of the blackest periods in Spanish history” (Graham, p. 27). While there was comparable violence on both sides during the Civil War, the atrocities committed after the war’s end by the Franco regime cast a dark, lingering shadow over his government and the Nationalist movement. According to the Spanish Foreign Office, approximately 10,000 Spaniards associated with the Republican movement were executed in the first 5 months after the war (Carr, p. 266). Unofficial estimates place the number of executions from 1939 to 1940 much higher, at 200,000–300,000 with an additional 250,000 imprisoned (Szulc, p. 200). Moreover, the regime continued to practice these tactics for the next 20–25 years, executing political prisoners almost daily. Periodically the government declared amnesties and announced that no prisoners remained, but within a few years it would again invoke the same deadly tactics. Franco put his supporters on alert against all subversives—that is, anyone who had backed the republic or who objected to the new government. “Serious passivity” toward the republic, he said, had been a crime in itself, and his regime enacted a law against it, retroactive to 1934. “Peace is not a comfortable and cowardly repose in the face of history” it was announced on state radio the day of the Nationalist victory. “The blood of those who fell for the Fatherland does not allow for forgetfulness, sterility or treachery. … Spain is still at war against all internal and external enemies” (Franco in Carr, p. 265). In the novel, Martín Gaite is impressed by her best friend who, despite these serious threats, remains defiant:
She never lowered her head when she said that her parents, who were schoolteachers, were in prison because they were Reds. She looked straight ahead, proudly, afraid of nothing.
(Martín Gaite, Back Room, p. 52)
Personally terrified of the Franco regime, Martín Gaite recalls being afraid of everything during this time, the memory of the biting cold winter mixing with the phrases: “don’t breathe a word about this,” “beware of that,” “don’t tell anyone they’ve killed Uncle Joaquin” (Back Room, p. 52).
The Falange was founded by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the dictator, based on the “spirit of sacrifice and service, an ascetic and military way of life” (Gilmour, pp. 11–12). A charismatic and widely respected leader—even by the left—he espoused anticapitalist economic theories. José Antonio believed that Spain ought to be a totalitarian state and that it needed to return to the Golden Age model in order to regain power and prestige. His Falange naturally aligned with the right, for both groups had the same philosophy as to what constituted “the true nature of Spain” (Gilmour, p. 12). In their view, true Spanish identity was founded on “sixteenth-century Spanish Catholicism … incarnating the Catholic ideal of our Military Monarchy” (José Pemartín in Enders, p. 55). They felt the Enlightenment and liberal ideas of the nineteenth century had led to Spain’s downfall and set out to return Spain to the sixteenth century. During the free elections of the Second Republic, the nation demonstrated that it was not anxious to relive the past, for the Falangists did not win a single seat in the Cortes. But when Franco came to power, the party became the only legal political party and served, along with the Catholic Church, to provide ideological justification and political organization for the Franco regime. The Falange’s founder, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, who died for his beliefs in prison during the Civil War, meanwhile became a cult figure. Drawing on his popularity, Franco invoked José Antonio’s image to rally support for the Falange.
The pillars of Franco’s new autocratic government were the army, the Church, the National Movement (the Falange), and civilian bureaucracy; its enemies were anyone or anything that threatened them. The government inculcated its ideology through education, psychological programming, and media propaganda. Franco’s system of autarky, or self-sufficiency, led to three levels of deprivation: financial, intellectual, and personal. His motto “death to intelligence” was taken literally as school children were taught that the civil war had been “a war of independence against foreign ideas”; that Franco had saved Spain from the “red revolution” and “freed [it] from the poison distilled by envy” (Graham and Labanyi, p. 208; Gilmour, p. 9). No dissent was tolerated, the press was tightly censored, and the Catholic Church was restored to prominence. Franco believed that Spain had to resist corruptive outside influences, such as democracy and capitalism; on the strength of this belief, he implemented a stilling policy of state intervention and protectionism, becoming a totalitarian dictator such as Spain had never seen before:
The man and his regime, in true totalitarian fashion, are one and inseparable. He is the Commander-in-Chief of all armed forces. He is the Chief of the Government. He is the Leader of the Party … the only Party. His parliament, the Cortes, boasts only one incontestable right: to approve his decrees.
(Hughes in Crow, p. 352)
In the novel, Martín Gaite’s protagonist recalls that during these years, “we were surrounded by ignorance and repression” and allowed only “those inadequate textbooks that blocked out learning” (Martín Gaite in Enders, p. 156).
Rationale and rationing
Shortly after the Civil War, World War II erupted but, reeling economically and militarily from its own three-year internal conflict, Spain was in no position to join either the Axis powers or the Allies. Though Franco had received aid from both Germany and Italy, he remained neutral or at least “non-belligerent” during the war, hedging his bets first in favor of the Axis powers when it looked as though they would win, then in favor of the Allies when their victory was assured (Pierson, p. 159). He did, however, take action on behalf of the Axis powers, facilitating passage of the German Army through Spain to North Africa and lending aid in other “non-belligerent” ways.
During World War II, shortages of food, work, and supplies of all kinds became critical. As evidenced in the novel, poverty, already common in Spain, became even more widespread and rationing of all essentials began. When the war ended, the rationing continued, for Spain found herself cut off from the world. After their defeat of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the Western Allied governments took a dim view of Franco’s continued fascist dictatorship, as well as his Axis-leaning non-belligerence policy during the war, and excluded Spain from the Marshall Plan of economic reparation. This, coupled with Franco’s protectionist trade policy, left the country with no funding to rebuild war-ravaged Spain and with few trading partners outside South America.
While Franco remained cut off from trade, income levels plummeted below those of 1936, inflation soared, and the value of the peseta dropped 20 percent. Neglected fields lay fallow, livestock died, and the infrastructure remained ruined from war and lack of maintenance. Foreign investors were scared away by Franco’s policy of non-dependence on foreign imports or credit and “conditions in Spain went from bad to desperate” (Pierson, p. 159). Shantytowns sprung up outside the cities. By 1949 prices had climbed seven times higher than before the Civil War, and the black market flourished. Corruption within the official agencies charged with providing rations ran rampant and was actually condoned by the government as a way to further punish subversives. As shown in the novel, government officials sold the daily staples they were supposed to be rationing: the black market they created became such a prevalent part of society that it figures in the childhood songs and games of Martín Gaite’s protagonist and her friends. Es-traperlo had been the name of a game of roulette but after the war it came to mean the black market. “It became something sordid and depressing.… Those secretly permitted under-the-counter dealings in contraband goods that raised the price of everything and made it hard to get rice, oil, coal, and potatoes were no laughing matter,” Martín Gaite recalls (Back Room, p. 131).
Re-education, banning, and brainwashing
Under the Franco regime, education was once again intertwined with the Catholic Church, as the caudillo (patriarch) believed he was fighting the war for Christianity against communism. With more than half of the university professors killed during and after the Civil War and tens of thousands of schoolteachers imprisoned or killed for being Republican sympathizers, schools and universities relied on clergy to teach, and “education was subordinated to the needs of the regime: loyal Christian pupils were preferred to independent, inquisitive minds” (Graham, p. 38). The state worked hard to indoctrinate children in the military, ultra-patriotic values of Franco’s regime, even creating for them little cut-out dolls that featured a young Franco holding a rifle in one hand and giving the fascist salute with the other. The textbooks used by Spain’s new teachers were biased, often racist tracts that praised loyal Catholic Spaniards and denounced foreigners and independent-minded “bad Spaniards.” “The cultural bias and educational mediocrity arising from Franco’s Civil War victory was arguably the most lasting and damaging scar left by the conflict” (Graham, p. 39).
Did a book meet with government disapproval? If so, it was banned. After the war’s end, Franco sealed the borders of the country; all bookstores were searched, and all foreign books—except the works of Fascists—were burned, along with all “liberal” works in Castilian. The Castilian language (what we call Spanish today—Franco imposed the title of “Spanish” on Castilian) became the only variety of Spanish allowed—Basques, Catalonians, and Galicians were forbidden to write in or speak their native tongues in public. All citizens were required to make the official fascist salute of outstretched right hand that meant “for the Empire towards God” and were encouraged to think of themselves as a “different” race. Franco made a concerted effort to keep modern culture and outside influences from seeping into the country, exploiting his countrymen’s long-held “Spanish pride” to keep them isolated (Pierson, p. 12). Poets, writers, and dramatists went into exile, while artists such as Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso fled to Paris and New York to continue their work in freedom. Martín Gaite, though allowed to publish novels in Spain, would and could not openly write her critical account of the Franco regime until after Franco’s death.
A woman’s place is in the home
Under the left-controlled Second Republic, women gained significant rights, such as the right to vote (in the 1931 constitution). Their shift in status resulted in Republican women’s fighting side-by-side with men in the Civil War. But when Franco came to power they were once again relegated to “the back room.” Franco reinstated the Civil Code of 1889, which declared (Article 57) that a husband must protect his wife and a wife must obey her husband. Legally she needed his permission for every act; otherwise she could be fined or jailed. Married women could not sell or mortgage property, accept an inheritance, rent an apartment, or take a job without their husband’s written permission; nor could they travel or take their children out of the country without the husband’s consent. Under Franco, women were perpetual minors. His regime enforced strict dress codes and moral codes of conduct for women; a double standard of sexuality—encouraged in men, prohibited in women—flourished. Marriage again became an indissoluble institution, and although adultery was grounds for separation for both men and women, only women could be prosecuted and sentenced up to as many as six years in prison for such an offense. In separation, the husband was automatically awarded custody of the children and penalties for prostitution, abortion, and illegitimate children applied only to women. Education for girls, though free and mandatory until age 14, was separate from boys when possible; secondary education was open to young women but not a widely accepted option for them until the 1950s. The attitude was a throwback to an earlier generation, the generation, for example, of Martín Gaite’s mother, who did not pursue her studies because “it wasn’t the custom in those days for girls to prepare for a career, so the thought never even crossed her mind” (Back Room, p. 87). The regime negated the progress made under the Second Republic, which had begun establishing equal rights for men and women, though the Republic was of such short duration that in practice women’s situation did not really improve.
In the mid-to-late twentieth century the women’s liberation movement was gaining strength throughout the West. Spain, however, remained out of the loop. In 1940 women made up 14 percent of the working population, by 1970 it had risen to just 25 percent. Franco, as in other matters, applied the “Spain is different” rationale to women’s issues and rewarded them for staying home and having children (Graham, p. 44). Laws passed by his regime went so far as to make it illegal for married women to work except as domestic servants. Familias numerosas were given discounts on public transportation, government subsidies, and higher salaries for the husband’s work, and they could not be evicted. Each year Franco personally awarded the familias numerosas of the year a medal. It was not uncommon therefore for women to have 12, 15, 20 children—even upper-class families who had no need for the monetary rewards averaged six kids.
Under Franco, women were required to contribute two years of social service. They performed this with The Women’s Section of the Falange, which taught women domestic skills and politically indoctrinated them. Franco’s regime stressed the unselfish heroism of wives and mothers and “the importance of their silent and obscure labor as pillars of the Christian home and family” (Back Room, p. 89). The ideal woman was one who embodied “happiness and activity” as exemplified by Queen Isabel and the romantic heroines of Carmen de Icaza’s novels (Back Room, p. 89). Emulating Isabel, Queen of Castile (reigned 1474–1504), girls were taught to fulfill their mission as Spanish women:
CONDITIONING WOMEN IN THE FRANCO REGIME
Under the Franco regime, all women had to perform mandatory social service, as directed by the Sección Femenina, or Women’s Section of the Falange. This society indoctrinated in women the idea that Catholic values—and therefore Spanish values—began with the family. Women must first and foremost be good wives and mothers and “maintain the happiness of the home” (Gómez in Enders, p. 55). The goal of women’s education was “to preserve their honesty and chastity” and promote the idea that because “a woman by nature is feebler and weaker than any other animal,’ she must sacrifice and suffer in order to redeem herself (Gómez in Enders, pp, 56–57). (This last teaching adheres to the Original Sin idea that Eve’s weakness caused mankind to be cast out from paradise so women must suffer and sacrifice to make amends.) To be a nun was as viable and respectable a role as wife and mother in Franco’s Spain. On the other hand, it was widely understood that to become a spinster was not only anti-Catholic but anti-Spanish. In stark contrast to the co- and equal education under the Second Republic, the educational system under Franco deemed that “there was no need to educate both sexes in equal terms” and that co-education was in fact dangerous given women’s wanton nature (Gómez in Enders, p. 58). The feminine virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity were mandated, and any woman who deviated from the official path was “condemned to life as a sinner” (Gómez in Enders, p. 59).
We would learn to make the sign of the cross on our children’s foreheads, to air a room, to make use of every last scrap of cardboard and meat, to remove stains, to knit mufflers and wash window curtains, to smile at our husband when he came home in a bad mood, to tell him that tanto monta tanto manda Isabel como Fernando [the famous historical motto of Ferdinand and Isabella that they ruled as co-equals], that domestic economy helps to safeguard the national economy and that garlic is excellent for the bronchial tubes.
(Back Room, p. 92)
With few or no models in Golden Age literature, Queen Isabel became the female ideal. She was the symbol of unselfishness and fortitude, the model held up for women such as Martín Gaite to emulate because of her qualities of strength and sacrifice for her man and country. Romance novels that told of unhappy heiresses locked up in gothic mansions awaiting rescue from a dark prince also impacted Martín Gaite, particularly since she read them for her college major. Carmencita Franco, the dictator’s daughter, seemed to fit the parameters. She was the same age as Martín Gaite and her protagonist, may have at least briefly lived in Salamanca like them, and even had the same name. Martín Gaite imagined the daughter to be one of these romantic heroines “trapped in a prison and under an evil spell” (Back Room, p. 59).
However, over the years, through cracks of the censored walls of Spain, some Western influences and some vastly different—if equally unrealistic—female role models seeped into Spain too. The Hollywood films of Deanna Durbin and reports of her starkly American behavior: roller skating to school and eating lemon ice cream seemed to Martín Gaite’s protagonist to be “the very image of freedom” (Back Room, p. 60). Along with other girls of her generation she collected pictures of these “intangible idols possessed of a mysterious, remote radiance” and dreamed of roles Spanish women could play that differed from the ones to which they were consigned (Back Room, p. 60).
In 1953, when the United States was at war with North Korea and fighting the more overarching Cold War against the Soviet Union as well, U.S. officials made a deal with Franco to establish military bases in Spain. This immediately reconnected Spain to the outside world and, along with a $625 million aid package, jump-started the Spanish economy. It would be a few more years before the economy saw a truly dynamic change. When Franco opened the country to foreign investment beginning in 1957, rural-to-urban migration quickened, and Spain transitioned into an industrial- and service-oriented rather than an agrarian society. Spain was readmitted to the United Nations and over the next two decades would crawl out of the economic abyss. Opus Dei technocrats replaced Franco’s inept ministers and at long last began the process of industrialization. As Martín Gaite’s protagonist does in the novel, Spaniards moved to the cities en masse and foreign firms set up subsidiaries. While government-controlled industries still dominated the marketplace, the influx of foreign businesses and investment, as well as a major influx of tourists, transformed Spain’s economy and society. A middle class was firmly established by the 1960s, with 79 percent of Spaniards working in either the service sectors or in industry. Literacy rates, albeit based just on the ability to sign one’s name, rose from 40 percent in 1920 to 92 percent in 1970, and university students began to agitate for change (Graham, p. 60). Though Franco cracked down harshly against protests, he saw that change was inevitable and decreed that the constitutional monarchy would be restored upon his death. Censorship decreased but state brutality against political protestors increased, particularly against the ETA (a Basque separatist organization, a terrorist group itself).
Ill and losing his grip on power, Franco died in 1975. His funeral, held on November 23, was witnessed by hundreds of thousands—some certainly to pay respects to the man who brought them so long a period of peace, but many to make certain he had truly passed away. A pivotal event in the lives of Martín Gaite and her contemporaries, Franco’s funeral prompted her writing of The Back Room. Suddenly at the moment of Franco’s burial, “time unfroze.… The man responsible for checking its flow and presiding over it had disappeared” (Back Room, p. 137).
“Experience cannot be communicated without bonds of silence, concealment, distance” (Georges Bataille in Back Room, p. 1). As this opening quote suggests, from a distance, The Back Room embarks on an introspective quest to define an artist’s development under the repressive Franco regime. Prompted by his death and funeral to search the “back room” of her memory, Martín Gaite’s protagonist explores hidden, forbidden feelings and events that can only now come openly to light. In a complex weaving of dreams, memories, and narrative, the novel creates an elaborate conversation that conjures childhood experiences, including war, rationing, censorship, and Spanish and Francoist social mores. Its protagonist probes literary genres and describes how myriad influences have forged her style, formed her development, and ultimately shaped the novel we are reading.
The story begins and ends in the same place. Martín Gaite’s protagonist is in bed, discussing her semiconscious state before she falls asleep. Memories, visions, and literary inventions flood her mind; they dance and mix and intertwine. She recalls her childhood; she dreams of romance novels; and she leaves us unsure about which events are past or present, real or imagined. Unable to rest, she scans the room and starts rummaging through a sewing basket. The contents spill out and each item triggers a new memory, one event leading to the next. She finds an old love letter buried in the basket and conjures the beach where her heroine met her lover, the barefoot man. Her mind wanders back and forth between personal memories and the plot of the “fantastic” romance novel she is writing as she drifts off to sleep. “I want to see you, I want to see you” she says with her eyes closed but has no idea whom she is addressing (Back Room, p. 18). In fact, she seems to be summoning herself—her hidden identity—wondering how she developed into the woman and artist she is today. The protagonist is awakened by a phone call. It is midnight and a man wants to come up. He says he is there for the interview, but she cannot recall this man or making the appointment. Not wanting to look foolish, she tells him to come up and quickly gets dressed.
The man comes into her apartment. He has black hair and eyes, and a black hat, which he places on the table next to her typewriter. “A page already begun is peeking out of the top of the typewriter and I read it out of the corner of my eye: “‘The barefoot man has now disappeared from sight.’ When did I write that?” (Back Room, p. 24). She cannot remember writing the page and does not recognize this man, but begins an extended conversation with him nonetheless.
As a storm brews outside, the two discuss fantastic literature, her education, and her novels. She recalls the first time she was “possessed by literature” and the beginning of her writing career (Back Room, p. 44). “Ambiguity is the key to fantastic literature,” the man in black says. “Not knowing whether what one has seen is true or false, never finding out” (Back Room, p. 47). As the man in black says this, we realize that he is speaking of the novel we are reading. We don’t know who the characters are at this point nor what is true or false. And we never actually find out.
As the two continue to talk, the protagonist recalls the Civil War and the bombing of her hometown, Salamanca. The protagonist discusses how the war shattered her illusions of romance yet all seemed unreal to her as a child. During a break in the conversation, Martín Gaite’s protagonist goes to the kitchen for some tea. She sees the old furniture from the back room of the house in which she grew up and the sight triggers a wave of memories. A song, popular during her youth, plays in her mind, the chorus urging, “Come to Cunigan soon … you’ll find it’s marvelous, magic, unique, really magnificent” (Back Room, p. 74). Cunigan was a place she dreamed of escaping to, though she still doesn’t know if it is real or not. But the back room was a place to which she knew she could escape to—in every sense. First, they had a back room in their house where her mother would sit and read, and where she and her sister would play. “I also imagine it’s the attic of one’s brain, a sort of secret place full of a vague jumble of all sorts of miscellaneous junk, separated from the cleaner and more orderly anterooms of the mind by a curtain that is occasionally pulled back” (Back Room, p. 87). As is happening to her right now, memories that live in the back room emerge only when the curtain is “pulled back.”
When she returns to the living room, the man in black is at her writing desk, gazing at a picture she normally keeps in her bedroom. She is greatly annoyed, as she thinks he’s been in her room. He insists, however, that he found it on the table and as she ponders the possibility that she moved it herself, she notices that the pile of papers next to the typewriter has grown in volume.
Appropriately enough, the two begin discussing time, as in the game of “red light, green light.” An analogy of Spain under Franco’s regime, players can only advance when the leader of the game has his back turned—if he turns around and catches players moving, they must go back to the starting line. But most silently advance, instantly freezing when the leader whirls around. The protagonist then takes a pill the man in black offers her from a box he leaves on her table. Like a hallucinogenic drug, the pill elicits yet more repressed memories. The protagonist reflects deeply on the war and its aftermath, a period of time once frozen, now in the process of thawing.
A phone call interrupts the conversation. It is for Alejandro, the man in black, from his jealous lover. She is calling because she believes the protagonist is Alejandro’s long-time lover, the one with whom he has exchanged a mountain of love letters. At first the protagonist thinks the woman, Carola, is crazy for she still feels that the man in black is a stranger. As Carola describes the love letters, the protagonist realizes they are related to the one she found in the sewing basket, and we realize that this is the storyline of her fantastic romance novel.
By the end of the conversation, the protagonist develops a deep affection for Carola. She wants Carola to retrieve the love letters so the protagonist can determine if she wrote them. But that is impossible because they are locked away in another room. The protagonist hangs up reluctantly and resumes her conversation with the man in black. She tells him about her childhood best friend and their imaginary land of Bergai. Then suddenly a gust of wind blows through the window and scatters the papers of her novel about the room. She is amazed at how many there are. Though she is growing sleepier, she implores the man in black to stay while she rests. He covers her with a shawl, and she falls asleep.
When she wakes, she is back in her bed, and her daughter is kissing her on the forehead. She has just returned from a party and the man in black is not there, though there are two glasses in the living room and the box of pills she thinks that he brought are still there. The protagonist kisses her daughter good night, hops back in bed, and picks up the pile of papers that had been on the table. There are 182 of them and on the first page is written: THE BACK ROOM.
The back room of memory
The back room is a “kingdom where nothing is forbidden,” a safe place where the protagonist could retreat to as a child and stash prohibited ideas and dreams (Back Room, p. 190). It is also a literal place in the house, which served as a food storage room during the war. Finally, it is a metaphor for the realm of memories kept in the recesses of her mind as an adult. The novel represents the opening of the door to the back room and the spilling of contents that the author has forgotten ever existed. Employing postmodern techniques, she peels the layers of her own understanding through an extended conversation with a stranger and this becomes the novel. Unaware that she is writing a novel, she keeps its existence hidden from herself just as the back room and its contents have been hidden all these years until she reaches the end and realizes what has been created.
Franco’s death in 1975 prompted a torrent of literary output stemming from repressed memories and viewpoints not allowed to come to the fore until his regime ended. In the heavily censored, tightly controlled environment of Franco’s Spain, where individual expression made you a “bad Spaniard,” subversive thoughts and queries were deeply buried out of fear. Individuals born at the start of his 36-year dictatorship, like Martín Gaite, had to keep those thoughts under wraps for the majority of their lives. When Franco was buried, the memories were finally dug up, the back doors opened, and lifetimes of experience poured out. “The book came to me in fact the very morning of [Franco’s] funeral,” her protagonist explains to the man in black (Back Room, p. 127). “You may have noticed how many memoirs have come out since Franco’s death,” she says. “It’s a real epidemic now” (Back Room, p. 127). Among them were those published by the many “moles”—men with Republican backgrounds who had lived in hiding, in some cases, for 40 years and emerged after Franco’s death from secret “back rooms”—attics, basements, and holes beneath floors.
Not wanting to write another straightforward, “boring” memoir, Carmen Martín Gaite constructs a fantastic account of the process of writing the novel and coming to terms with her repressed memories and hidden dreams during the course of it. As if in therapy with a mysterious stranger, she reminisces and realizes what a profound effect Franco has had on her life. Before Franco, people enjoyed debating politics publicly. Discussions were passionate, heated, and “it didn’t appear to be a monotonous game, but rather one with lots of variety” (Back Room, p. 129). People “talked about whatever they liked,” but when Franco came to power all that changed dramatically, as the protagonist recalls (Back Room, p. 132):
From the beginning it was clear that he was the one and only, that his power was indisputable and omnipresent, that he had managed to insinuate himself into all the houses, schools, movie theatres, and cafes, and do away with spontaneity and variety, arouse a religious, uniform fear, stifle conversations and laughter so that no one’s voice rang out any louder than anyone else’s.
(Back Room, p. 132)
When Franco dies, Martín Gaite’s protagonist cannot believe it. Many citizens celebrate loudly, some weep, but the protagonist remains unmoved. All the years of his regime come tumbling down on her. At this moment, the back door swings wide open and she utters thoughts and observations that she has kept in the recesses of her mind for her entire life.
As the novel illustrates, Franco had paralyzed time during his tenure. Martín Gaite realizes while writing that those years of her life—the bulk of it—“felt like a homogenous block” (Back Room, p. 133). She could not differentiate the war years from the postwar years and had buried her apprehensions and secret thoughts, her spontaneity and the unhindered processes of her mind so deeply that it took this extended conversation, the writing of the novel, to begin to extract them. Locked away in the back room of her brain, they poured out only when the curtain was parted, when it was finally safe to revisit them and even acknowledge that region of her soul. The novel delves into the depths of the protagonist’s experience in a stream-of-consciousness, dreamlike fashion, examining the minutiae, the underlying and often overlooked details of life. In the end, she realizes that Franco’s funeral is actually happening and is about to radically change reality for everyone in Spain. The novel, she knows, is the back room of her mind—the catharsis that novelist and nation begin to undergo the day Franco dies.
FROM DICTATORSHIP TO DEMOCRACY
Transition to democracy happened remarkably quickly in Spain, Just three years after Franco’s death, his regime had given way to a government based on universal suffrage, but the shift did not happen without resistance, centered in the army. It must be remembered that Franco lasted for 40 years in Spain because he had many supporters. Not until a couple decades after the novel appeared, in the 1990s, when the democracy achieved very tangible economic gains, would there be a clear majority in its favor.
Postmodernism in the arts
After World War II, when Martín Gaite was a young college student, the postmodernist movement in the arts and literature emerged in Europe. Postmodern writing insists that there is not one universal truth but many. As in The Back Room, identities are not fixed and there is as much emphasis on the unsaid as the said. For example, when Martín Gaite is searching her memory for “facts” about Franco, she realizes it is the intangibles, “the crumbs, not the little white pebbles” that she is seeking (Back Room, p. 138). This is a postmodernist concept: emphasizing the writing between the lines, the details that normally get glanced over or lost.
A main characteristic of postmodernism is playfulness. Martín Gaite consciously chooses to write about a man who imposed empirical order, who structured every thought and dictated every behavior in a postmodern, anti-empirical style. Like the early-twentieth-century British novelist Virginia Woolf, who was not a postmodernist, Martín Gaite employs stream-of-consciousness writing to peel the layers of understanding so that she can come to terms with thoughts, memories, and feelings that have been locked away in “the back room” for 36 years. The postmodern movement allowed writers like Martín Gaite to revisit tragedy and challenge the dogmas of a highly polarized, politicized era without applying their own dogmatic theory. The movement itself is the antithesis of a totalitarian, black-and-white view of the world and enables artists to visit historical events through a host of vehicles and view them from myriad perspectives.
Sources and literary context
The Back Room is based on Martín Gaite’s personal life experiences. She uses her own name as the protagonist’s and names the novels she has written, such as The Spa, as her protagonist’s work. Because it is a probing of literary genres—part romance, part fantastic—as well as a bildungsroman, or novel of personal maturation, she considers naming it Romantic Rituals in Eighteenth-Century Spain, a title echoing that of her nonfiction bestseller Usos amorosos del dieciocho en España (Customs of Love in Eighteenth-Century Spain), which was a spinoff of her doctoral dissertation. She discusses personal experiences of the Civil War—the bombings, Franco’s Falangist headquarters in Salamanca, where she grew up, and her feelings about Carmencita Franco, whom she encountered frequently as a girl since Carmencita was often in the news. Also she incorporates her personal expertise in romance literature into the fabric of the novel, as well as her desire to write a fantastic novel, which The Back Room becomes. In the novel itself, Martín Gaite references Todorov’s book, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach, as an instructional guide, as well as the literature of Lewis Carroll (the novel is dedicated to him), Miguel de Cervantes, Daniel Defoe, and Carmen de Icaza; the Hollywood films of Deanna Durbin, the songs of Conchita Piquet, and popular poems and jingles of the 1940s.
Hailed as Martín Gaite’s “undisputed masterpiece” The Back Room won Spain’s prestigious National Prize for Literature in 1978 (Buck, p. 791). Upon publication, the novel was praised in El Mundo for being excellently plotted and written with “perfect simplicity,” while other critics singled it out for skillfully managing “to weave together the author’s reminiscences of her childhood, the literature of the fantastic, and sentimental romance” (Buck, p. 79). In the New York Times Book Review, Patricia O’Connor described the novel as “an exquisite creation, elegant, smart, and sad—a remarkable story” (O’Connor, p. 34). Critic Debra Castillo applauded Martín Gaite for mingling reality and fantasy: “Apparent polarities [of] memory, forgetfulness, history and literature, true and false, reality and fantasy … are suddenly, ambiguously, flung together in a celebration of riches” (Castillo in Brown, p. 86). The novel, concludes Joan Lipman Brown, exhibits Martín Gaite’s “mastery of multiple techniques, skill as a social observer, and astute depictions of the lives of women” (Brown, p. 86).
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