In 1978, Francisco Franco had been dead three years, and Spain was transitioning from his nearly forty-year dictatorship to a parliamentary democracy. Censorship had just been abolished under the new constitution, and homosexuality decriminalized. It had only been a few years since the permiso marital was also abolished, which prevented married women from working, owning property or traveling without their husband’s permission, but it would be a few more years before divorce was legal. In the midst of all this, Esther Tusquets—who until then had been known primarily as the director of the Barcelona publishing house, Lumen—published her first novel, The Same Sea as Every Summer: a tender, lyrical account of a lesbian affair between a middle-aged woman and a teenage girl. Tusquets immediately followed up with two more novels, Love is a Solitary Game (1979) and Stranded (1980), to complete what she called her “trilogy of the sea.” In each of these novels, an unhappy woman seeks to rescript her life through her relationships, only to find she repeats the very patterns she’s trying to subvert. The protagonists of the three novels aren’t exactly the same person, though they share characteristics and a name.
Tusquets’s trilogy has been available in English for more than two decades, so Barbara F. Ichiishi’s recent translation of Tusquets’s first collection of short stories, Seven Views of the Same Landscape (1981) is a welcome addition. In these stories, Tusquets’s protagonists also share characteristics and a name. They’re all upper middle class Barcelona girls named Sara, and they appear at various ages between nine and eighteen. In each story, Sara is discovering the essential conflicts that play out repeatedly in the novels, and even more frankly in the series of memoirs that Tusquets published before her death in 2012. Small epiphanies alter Sara’s view of her life and herself, and slowly add up to a more mature vision of the person she wants to be.
Tusquets was born into an upper middle class Catalan family just after the start of the Spanish Civil War and grew up in the kind of privileged household she depicts in the story “Cousins.” In this story, Sara is nine. Her parents have sided with Franco in the civil war, and accordingly, sympathize with the Axis nations during the Second World War. The family hires German au pairs to look after their children (“frauleins,” who will be replaced by “mademoiselles” after Germany’s defeat) and sends them to private schools where they’re taught “songs that almost always [speak] of the fatherland and of death,” and the “firm martial salute, arm raised in the air.” Sara’s Uncle Ignacio tells her that “many of these boys will go from here directly to the front lines.” She adores her charismatic uncle, and is a little afraid of him—an inexplicable fear that leads her to question how he looks at the world:
…maybe he just talked for the sake of talking or maybe it was their own fault that the weaker children were weak, as it must largely be their own fault—she had often heard—that poor people were poor (and it was this hypothesis that allowed her to choose rather freely sweets in the pastry shop, to drink in the cafés with relatively good conscience steaming cups of hot chocolate, as she saw the noses of other children pressed against the outside of the panes, although Sara could not very well understand how the children could be to blame)…
Sara is a sheltered, pampered child, but attentive, and the tipping point in each story comes when she can no longer square what she’s seen and heard with what she’s expected to believe. Her uncle enlists her older male cousins Gabi and Bruno to protect her in the schoolyard, and assures her that girls don’t need to learn to defend themselves. The songs she overhears in the maids’ room tell a different story about women whose virtue is never enough to protect them, who are used and abandoned by the men they love. Sara concludes that even when men’s and women’s feelings coincide, “it really involved a misunderstanding and the two wanted different things.”
Sara’s cousin Bruno openly rejects her family’s lifestyle and values, even as he and his mother are forced to live with them and accept their charity. As Sara comes more and more to align herself with him, she also begins to see their connection as a temporary shelter, part of a childhood both will eventually leave behind:
…many years later Sara would think with ironic melancholy that she had lived some of the most intense moments of her life at the age of nine, sitting in a hut made of bedspreads and old rugs, listening to the radio rebroadcast of some games that she did not understand, and nevertheless desiring with intense fervor, with all her strength, that the team that Bruno cared about so very much would win—maybe as close as she had ever come to succeeding in really sharing something with another human being, to assuming as her own his desires and fears, to grazing the threshold of that indispensable and unattainable utopia of living as two.
Tusquets foregrounds Sara’s interior life, at every age, through long sentences that unspool in a rush of clauses. (They typically span a paragraph, but the longest go on for pages.) The narrative reads as stream of consciousness—or perhaps “sea of consciousness” would be more accurate, as one feels buffeted by many currents of thought at once, an incoming tide of digression. Every remembered detail has its place in a narrative that reflects the “complex hierarchy of [Sara’s] childhood mythology,” a view colored by class and gender, images from fairy tales, and the ordinary magic of a comfortable childhood.
In “I have kissed your mouth, Jokanaan,” Sara, just seventeen and studying to be an actor, tries to convince her working class boyfriend, Ernesto, to run away with her. She doesn’t see the contradiction—or the privilege—in her assumption that she can choose to cross class lines that Ernesto can’t, and she’s furious when he won’t indulge her fantasy of escaping the system that divides them:
‘you won’t be able to, Sara, it won’t work, as hard as you try you can never erase your secure childhood without fears, the fear of not having food to eat the next day, the fear that they will take your father and imprison him in the middle of the night, you will never be able to make up for that, you will never stop paying for that,’ and he was speaking to her with a fury and resentment that frightened her and now left her speechless, without recourse, because if her guilt did not live in something she had done, in something she had chosen to be, but rather in having been born and in being what others had determined that she was, there was nothing she could do but assume it was a verdict without right of appeal…
Sara doesn’t lose her innocence all at once. The stories in Seven Views of the Same Landscape demonstrate no simple progression toward moral clarity, no straight line, just disillusionment and failure and the hard-won glimmers of insight that help Sara envision a future that won’t repeat the past. This is the commitment that Tusquets makes in all of her writing. One can hear her voice in Sara’s when she vows “to keep moving forward, dragging along with her that heavy load of memories, since she could never again forgive herself, nor did she ever again intend to forget them.”
About the Reviewer
Anne McDuffie writes poetry, essays and reviews. Recent work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review and in a collaborative show (poetry, painting and glass sculpture) at the Orcas Center on Orcas Island. You can find her online at annemcduffie.com.