It is 50 years since the 25-year-old Montserrat Roig’s devastating novel of oppression and confinement Goodbye, Ramona exploded into a Catalonia fighting to break the shackles of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1977)
Roig’s method is to keep major events in the background, though always present THE TRANSLATION IS AGILE AND GENERALLY READS VERY WELL
Goodbye, Ramona covers three generations of middle-class Barcelona women of the same family from the 1890s to 1966. All three, grandmother, mother/daughter and daughter, are called Ramona (or their nickname Mundeta). They are trapped in miserable relationships, with dire emotional and sex lives. Roig is not the sort of feminist who exalts heroic women, but rather focuses on the details of oppression, how middle-class women’s lives are reduced to dependence on men. Her three women’s unhappiness is both mitigated and fomented by fantasies plucked from romantic novels or films. They are trapped like the butterflies that Francisco, an unlucky moneylender and the first Ramona’s husband, collects. This Ramona imagines herself fluttering free like a colourful butterfly, but in reality she is a trophy pinned inside Francisco’s showcase.
Trapped in Silence
My opening paragraph might make you think that this furious young author, brought up in resistance to the dictatorship, was scribbling a diatribe against her society. This is to some degree the case, for Roig is an angry novelist of ideas. But she is no scribbler: despite her youth and this being her first novel, she controls complex material with great skill. Roig dispenses with chapters and alternates the voices of the three women in brief scenes, which allows her to highlight constantly the many similarities and differences between them.
Although Roig portrays the three women as trapped and weak-willed, she empathises with them. They may be weak, but are not caricatures. She tells their stories from within, through the diary of the first Ramona and interior dialogue for the other two. Silence is their lot: no-one listens to them and they don’t even understand each other. The first Ramona’s diary covers 1893 to 1919; the sections of her daughter, the middle Ramona, tackle the years of the Republic, 1931-38; and her granddaughter, a few weeks in the mid-1960s. The first two Ramonas are confined in marriages to emotionally absent men: the first, ineffectual; the second, tyrannical. Each of the two women has another, secret relationship that both burns and sustains them. The third Ramona, of Roig’s generation, is struggling with the personal liberation of the 1960s, entwined with the political fight against the dictatorship. Roig draws an unflattering picture of 1960s left-wing men, whose casual cruelty toward women distinguishes them little from the bourgeois husbands of the first two Ramonas. This is a novel on how hard it is to break free from dictatorship and from centuries of patriarchy.
The women live through 75 years of Barcelona’s violent history: from the 1893 anarchist bomb in the Liceu opera-house, the mass strikes of the early 20th century, the hopes of the Second Republic, the Civil War defeat, to the dictatorship’s repression. Roig’s effective method is to keep these major political events in the background, though always present. For example, the middle Ramona, in a passage lasting several pages, is more interested in the hot chocolate she is sipping in a café than in the shouts of joy in the streets as demonstrators celebrate the 1931 proclamation of Spain’s Second Republic. The great exception is the bold and famous 25-page tour-de-force that opens the novel, when the same middle Ramona is searching for her husband after the March 1938 Coliseum bomb. Pregnant, she is buffeted in the terrified crowd, associating for the first time in her life with working-class people other than maids or waitresses. She talks with people she would never otherwise meet. An old anarchist explains his life to her. She thinks of her black-marketeer pro-Franco husband who crushes her as “a silly girl, a nitwit”. Worse, Ramona usually believes she’s a nitwit, but here in the crowd, in the middle of violent death, Ramona feels alive and thinks how she’ll be able to boast of her bravery to her free-thinking friend Kati. This episode and the existence of Kati suggest another life, which Ramona briefly glimpses, but cannot reach.
Goodbye, Ramona is the first in a trilogy of novels about the linked Claret and Miralpeix families. The second was her best-known, El temps de les cireres, 1976 winner of the Sant Jordi prize. The trilogy was completed by L’hora violeta (1980). Each novel stands alone, but the main characters recur, creating a mosaic of middle-class women’s lives in Barcelona. The city is always present in the trilogy, in Goodbye, Ramona from the early 20th century when the Eixample, the city’s grid expansion, was the fashionable address to the “decadence” (Roig’s word) of the dictatorship. The youngest Ramona finds that the city “attracted her with all the violence of a cruel lover” (p.104). The loved and hated city is both exciting and harsh, the very embodiment of the society that has moulded the three women.
The translation is agile and generally reads very well. A small criticism: to help readers, the translators have inserted which of the three women is narrating each section. This was not Roig’s choice. In reality, it is not hard to know which section is which; and the slight effort Roig was asking of her readers is a way of focusing the reader on the content.
Whether Roig conceived the trilogy as a whole from the start I do not know, but the repeated themes and characters suggest she did. She explores women’s loneliness, the fight to be free of dependence on men and the conflicts between an intimate relationship and political activity. Feminist and sometime member of the PSUC (Catalan Communist Party), Roig wanted to explain her society. She was a writer of ideas, though this in no way diminishes her powers of description, expression of emotions and characterisation. Goodbye, Ramona is an accomplished realist and psychological novel.
Born in 1946, Montserrat Roig died of cancer in 1991. In 20 years of brilliant creativity, she published two volumes of stories, five novels, several books of interviews and articles, an account of the siege of Leningrad and her non-fiction masterpiece, the 800-page Els catalans als camps nazis.
Throughout this period, she was living to the full the transition from dictatorship to democracy. She brought up two children. She wrote numerous articles and conducted major interviews with cultural figures in Catalan on Spanish Television (several are available on YouTube). Roig was one of the major committed intellectuals of her time, raising the flag of socialist feminism.
To the struggle against Franco’s national and social oppression, Montserrat Roig added the fight for women’s liberation. She was a rebel. A pioneer in feminism and historical memory, her permanent legacy is her profound and shining literature.