El cuarto de atrás is Carmen Martin Gaite’s first post-Franco novel. Encompassing two very distinct genres, it is a fantastical novel, whilst in the same framework, a realist memoir of a woman growing up in post-war Spain. Through the use of the fantastic mode, the author approaches the real social history of the Civil War and post war period. This essay, will explore how Martin Gaite confronts this recent history, illustrating the hostile political environment of her youth and the anxiety it engendered. Through aesthetic techniques, particularly the fantastic mode, the novel facilitates a recollection of memories, which for many, were tarred with pain and anger. What we discover is that Martin Gaite’s intended purpose for her novel is not direct criticism of the fascist regime, but rather she aims to capture the collective memory of a generation, a memory which is often difficult to yield.
To begin, it necessary to understand Martin Gaite’s decision to write her novel in this way, by gaining a sense of the climate of opinion which prevailed among the leading writers at the end of Franco’s rule, the time when Martin Gaite wrote El cuarto de atrás. One of her contemporaries, the influential Juan Goytisolo, published an essay in 1967, which criticises the insipid realistic literature that was written in post-war Spain. He warns that Spanish novelists seem to have lost the ability to smile, despite belonging to a literary tradition that can draw on Cervantes and Larra. Goytisolo claims that, preoccupied with fighting Franco with words, he and his contemporaries have failed to serve either their cause or the wider interests of literature itself. In his essay, he writes:
Digámoslo con claridad: las generaciones venideras nos pedirán cuentas, sin duda, de nuestra actual conducta cívica, pero no tomarán a ésta en consideración si, paralelamente a nuestra responsabilidad moral de ciudadanos, no manifestamos nuestra responsabilidad artística como escritores. No basta, en efecto, reclamar la libertad: tenemos que probarla desde ahora con la autenticidad y responsabilidad de nuestras obras (Wood 2012: 48).
Martín Gaite acknowledged and responded to this need for a new form of literature that did not rely solely on politics and realism. On November 23, 1975, the day that Franco died, she set out to write El cuarto de atrás. Her novel would focus on two main literary goals; Firstly, to write a social history of the post-war era and secondly to write a fantastic novel.
The novel is narrated by a woman called ‘C’, similar to Martin Gaite herself, who tells the story of an unexpected visit by a mysterious man, in the middle of the night. He has come to interview her. During their night-long conversation, the interviewer encourages the narrator in her recollection of her past. During the course of the conversation, the two protagonists notice that in the corner of the room, there is a pile of papers, which continues to grow. At the end of the novel, we learn that this stack of pages comprises the novel itself, even entitled ‘El cuarto de atrás’. Their conversation has produced a novel. This powerful metafictional image of the written manuscript of the novel appearing within the novel itself creates a sense of participation amongst her readers. In the final pages, when the protagonist picks up the manuscript, we suddenly become aware of the novel we hold in our hands, and see it now as a mere artefact, the product of the conversation to which we have been aesthetically participating.
The mystery behind this metafiction helps in establishing the ‘fantastic’ genre of the novel. Todorov gives a three-part definition of the fantastic genre, all three met in El cuarto de atrás, ‘the reader considers the fictional world as real, the reader and the narrator share a hesitation over whether or not...