Fiction: En la piel del otro

Author: María Barbal
-Ediciones Destino
-US Release Date: 01-01-2014
-Reviewed by:Tony Beckwith
-Review Release:April 13, 2015

This book weaves several stories into one. It is mainly focused on the two protagonists, both of whom are women, Ramona and Mireia. In fluid, articulate prose the author gradually divulges details of their lives and loves and their involvement with a clandestine organization devoted to documenting and preserving the memories of the men and women who were forced into exile in France during and after the Spanish Civil War. 

The bulk of the story takes place in Barcelona in the early 1970s, toward the end of the Franco regime. But there are flashbacks to the retirada [Retreat], the name given to the exodus of Spaniards who had to leave their homeland to escape the vengeful wrath of the fascists who came to power at the end of the war. The narrative casts some light on the hardships endured by those refugees during their sojourn in French work camps, which were later taken over by the Nazis and became concentration camps. This is the grim backdrop against which the main story is told. It provides one of the principal characters with the means to create a fictional version of her own family history, a questionable move that initially serves her well but ultimately triggers disastrous results. This strategy is alluded to by the title of the book, which in English could be translated as “In Someone Else’s Shoes.”  

Maria Barbal is from Tremp, Catalonia, and has a good ear for the speech patterns of the region. She is a careful, methodical writer, eking out her story in short scenes that tell readers what they need to know but keep them in a pleasant state of suspense. She is never in a hurry, and the reader settles into her measured pace, eager to accompany her and find out what happens next. There are a couple of loose ends that this reader would have liked to see resolved in a more satisfying manner but that is, on the whole, a minor quibble. The translation from Catalan into Castilian Spanish by Concha Cardeñoso Sáenz de Miera is so good it is invisible. 

Barbal’s characters are impeccably drawn. The older ones are mostly working class Spaniards who have migrated to Barcelona from small villages or towns, seeking to improve their circumstances and give their children a better life. The author uses some of them to explore the ongoing conflict between labor and capital that the Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship did nothing to resolve. She also contrasts the life of college students and factory workers, and shows how government agents infiltrated universities to keep tabs on leftists and others deemed subversive. Barbal sketches each character’s personality and physical appearance so well that it isn’t long before the reader can see them and understand them; can walk in their shoes, as it were. 

Because it is set in Barcelona against a backdrop of the Civil War and its aftermath, some readers might associate Maria Barbal’s book with La sombra del viento [The Shadow of the Wind] and El prisionero del cielo [The Prisoner of Heaven], both by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. But the similarity ends there. For one thing, unlike Ruiz Zafón’s novels, Barbal’s book features two strong women characters, and for another it tells a story that is more rooted in fact than fantasy.