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  • Uncommon Sense: Dictatorship, Transition, and Dissensus in Carmen Martín Gaite’s El cuarto de atrás
  • José Luis Venegas (bio)

In Carmen Martín Gaite’s study of courtship customs in post–civil war Spain, Usos amorosos de la posguerra española (1987), the renowned Spanish novelist discusses how feminine magazines in postwar Spain instructed women to use their romantic correspondence to inquire about topics of interest to their male addressees and to lay the foundations for a strong and durable marriage.1 Knowing the rhetorical tricks for attracting male attention was indeed a valuable asset in achieving the ultimate goal for females who grew up and became adults during General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939–75): finding a husband. While writing letters was considered a skill that, like sewing, cooking, and ironing, every woman in search of a husband should master, it also had the curious power of suspending the benumbing rules that cast women in the invariable roles of obedient daughter, dutiful wife, and dedicated mother. Talking about one’s feelings in a letter, Martín Gaite writes, was like putting down a “draft version” of the novel in which these young women sought to play the leading part that was unremittingly denied to them by their dreary circumstances.2

The narrative creativity of these private missives closely resembles Martín Gaite’s model of literary writing. In El cuento de nunca [End Page 337] acabar (1983), a collection of essays on the craft of fiction, she explains that one of the earliest manifestations of a writer’s “narrative autonomy,” of her capacity to use language freely, is the letter she sends to a “flesh-and-blood friend.” She contrasts this liberating form of writing with the dry and impersonal rhetorical exercises designed to teach unwilling schoolchildren how to write proper letters. The personal missive, unlike the academic composition, frees the powers of the imagination from what she describes as the “rusty rails” of set formulas and official values.3 Although Martín Gaite never wrote a conventional epistolary novel, her works often feature letters as emblems of freedom and liberation from society’s constraints. El cuarto de atrás (1978) is perhaps the novel that best illustrates this link between epistolary writing and social criticism.4 The letters in the novel appear as fragments of the female protagonist’s psyche, as manifestations of those ideas, dreams, and desires that had to remain secret during Franco’s dictatorship. As Patrick Paul Garlinger has perceptively noted, the letters in the text function “as signposts of foreclosed desire, of libidinal activity that has been buried and ostensibly forgotten.”5 Specifically, Garlinger focuses on how some of the letters exchanged between female characters articulate the specter of lesbian desire and break with the patriarchal and heterosexual expectations that have traditionally governed the epistolary genre. While letter writing certainly conveys the female narrator’s innovative representations of gender and sexuality, as Garlinger has amply demonstrated, it also allows us to consider Martín Gaite’s work as an attempt to expose not only the repressive ideology of the Franco years but also the official rhetoric of the historical period that followed those years and coincided with the process of composition of the novel: the transition to democracy.6 In telescoping its criticism of these two periods, El cuarto de atrás encourages an understanding of the Spanish transition not as a new beginning for the country but as the continuation of past repression under new political and social forms.

Political analysts have often considered the Spanish transition as an exemplary model of democratization through consensual arbitration.7 Consensus, an almost sacred notion during this time, became a matter of common sense, an unquestioned principle that brought together political elites of widely different ideological stripes in their efforts to leave behind a turbulent and divisive historical past and to build a democratic future. El cuarto de atrás asks us to read the social text of the transition and the consensual strategies that otherwise buttressed it by eschewing blind celebratory narratives and disarticulating the received notions and commonsensical certitudes on which the “success” of the transition [End Page 338] rests. In doing...


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pp. 337-361
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