No Turning Back is the most important novel by Lidia Falcón and has just become available in an English translation by Jessica Knauss. The following excerpt comes from Chapter 6, showing the main character, Elisa's, memories of solidarity and struggle for basic survival as opposed to political ideas in prison in Spain in the early 1970's. The chapter circles back to the conversation she's carrying on with her ex-husband, Arnau, in 1986.
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“Are you sure?”
Elisa looked at the newcomer with wide eyes. Marisa was brunette with black, grown-together eyebrows, a hearty complexion and a peasant look, and must have been robust before she went through the State Security Headquarters. Juana Parroto was also looking at her with the concern her situation deserved.
“Pretty sure. When I was arrested I was two weeks late and was going to go to a doctor. Then, at the police station, I thought it would come because I was afraid, and because of the beatings, but maybe that’s why it didn’t…”
“How long were you at the station?”
“That long?” Elisa’s face was tense. “Then you’ve skipped more than once, haven’t you?”
Marisa nodded her head. It was a square head covered with a thick mat of hair she wore tied back with a string at her nape.
“We’ll have to fix it,” Juana declared with no trace of doubt, and Marisa looked at her, relieved.
Elisa turned to her without understanding. “What do you mean?”
“She’ll have to have an abortion.”
“Here? How?” She was nearly shouting.
Juana looked annoyed and warned, “Don’t yell, okay? I don’t know how, but it’ll have to be done. Marisa can’t have a baby now, least of all in prison. We’ll find a way. Relying on our own strengths, as Mao said.”
Elisa didn’t insist, but she thought Mao had never had to have an abortion. Least of all in a Spanish prison.
“We’ll just have to ask someone’s family for an abortive. Let’s see, Pilar Laborde’s sister is a nurse. She’ll help us.”
And Juana quickly left the classroom where they had been talking to carry out her plan. Marisa looked meekly at Elisa. In her eyes, there was a plea for forgiveness. She was begging pardon for bothering the more important and higher-up comrades with a problem which was hers alone and was getting in the way of the party’s work. Like a beaten mule, Elisa thought, but she was immediately sorry. The thought was obviously classist.
The education she received from the nuns had never disappeared, and she saw Mother Perelló, standing up straight, enveloped by her habit, her face framed by the curved white cap that kept her from looking to her sides, repeating with her beautiful pink lips, “Poor people are very susceptible, so we must treat them with courtesy. Without allowing them to overstep themselves, but letting them know we respect them as the children of God we all are.”
But we were superior, Elisa told herself angrily, in a pyramid, structured from the beginning of time to the end of Creation, in which after Christ and the Virgin came first, Mother Perelló, and then the girls at the boarding school, and much further down, a dark and tattered multitude, which had to be “treated with courtesy.”
So she was surprised when she heard Octubre scream at Marisa, “Idiot! Worse than idiot! You only wish you were stupid and ignorant!” Her own rage choked her as she linked together a series of insults, all related to Marisa’s mental capacity. Marisa took the sharp rebuke with her head down, saying nothing. The same way she must have endured her father’s scolding. Elisa observed the scene and didn’t understand how Octubre could dare to insult a worker that way, when she was struggling so bravely, to the point of putting her own life in danger. Octubre was scornful when Elisa made this observation that night in their cell.
“So what? She’s a worker and obedient to her party. As if that were a guarantee of intelligence! Aren’t you turning out to be a fanatic. No one could be more foolish than Marisa. First she gets together with a boy and gets pregnant, and then she goes and throws Molotov cocktails at the Legion recruitment center, just to wound a few unfortunate souls who go there because they have no other place to fall down dead, and then she gets herself caught. And here she is now with a terrorism charge and a full belly. Perfect! And on top of it all she isn’t even married!”
“It was better that way, so we couldn’t be identified. The party told us we should never tell them we lived together. To cover your tracks it’s better if they don’t find you with someone…”
Octubre and Elisa looked at Marisa silently for a few seconds. All the parties recommended marriage for their activists, not for moral reasons, but so as not to call attention to themselves. It wasn’t the time to make free love a question of principle. But in Marisa and Adalberto’s case it was different. If they were to be entrusted with armed struggle, they should not have partners, or a permanent address, or a private life. If one fell, he should not be identified by his relationship with another.
“In that case a person shouldn’t get pregnant.”
“I know. But I really didn’t know how to prevent it. He would pull out, beforehand, you know, but sometimes that doesn’t work.”
“You didn’t take contraceptives? The pill?” Elisa added, seeing the confusion in Marisa’s face.
“No, there wasn’t anyone to prescribe it for me. We lived hand to mouth, with no permanent address, and since I was using an assumed name, I didn’t have a social security card, either. I didn’t know of any pharmacy…”
Elisa was distressed by that accumulation of impossibilities and ignorance. She had never seen a more unlucky being, more crushed by adverse conditions.
Octubre once described her past for Elisa. “It’s obvious you’ve never been poor. If you’d lived in El Pozo del Tío Raimundo, in a shack with no running water, no electricity, no toilet… the water coming down on your head when it rained, boiling hot in the summer, smelling the crap that ran liquid in the streets, with the barefoot, half-naked kids splashing around in the filthy water… Ten years ago in the factory where I worked ten hours a day, I made five thousand pesetas a month, and the rent for that shack cost me a thousand…”
Elisa knew these and other, more chilling facts. Before she was active in the party, the Catholic groups and charity organizations of the Church had publicized these scenes of poverty. A few times she had even gone to the huts of Torre Baró or the Bamba neighborhood around Barcelona, to give money or packs of food to the poorest families, and the image of misery and powerlessness had always shaken her. But Marisa gave her a different impression. She was a worker involved in the struggle, so her attitude didn’t reflect the meekness and demoralization so widespread among the hopelessly marginalized. She was a young woman, twenty-two years old, who had a man at her side who loved her and who devoted himself to the same struggle. Their economic situation wasn’t so desperate, either. When they were not in jail, they both collected a salary from the party they could just about live on, as well as the amount they received for the expenses of the activities they carried out. That wasn’t the problem. What shocked Elisa was precisely that a woman in such conditions could have that meekness, that irreversible fatalism about her own fate that so contradicted the activity she was undertaking and the ideology that supported it.
“And your man, didn’t he know how to use a condom, either? They sell them in the shops in Chinatown and a man knows where to get them with no problems.”
“He didn’t like them. He said it didn’t feel the same.”
Her voice trailed off into a murmur at the end. Shame kept her from looking at her comrades, from explaining the cause of her problem in detail. Elisa tried to draw some conclusion from Marisa’s story.
“Were you living in Madrid?” she ventured to ask after a few minutes.
“Yes, for two years.”
“And before that?”
“We’re Galician. The party sent us here to take a leadership course. We were studying the works of Mao and Lenin.”
Elisa stared at her and didn’t reply. It was Octubre who had the audacity to shout without noticing how disrespectful it was to Marisa.
“Whoa, plenty of leadership courses and books by Lenin and Mao, and not enough knowing how to stick it in without doing any damage. What ignorance, Lord! Your party would’ve spent its time better teaching you how to deal with the facts of life.”
Elisa didn’t have to defend her party, which at the moment meant nothing to her. It was Marisa who reacted immediately. With an energy no one would have suspected a few moments before, she straightened up — and in that moment she seemed to increase in size and volume — and arrogantly answered that her party had more important things to do. Giving courses on pills and other stupid things like that was fine for petty bourgeois women’s organizations, but they were called upon to carry out the revolution, in which everything would have a place.
“Well, if you rely on that, your kid will be old and crotchety before you finally learn to take the pill.”
Elisa removed herself from the general argument that followed Octubre’s insulting remark. She only paid attention to Marisa’s aggressiveness, since moments before she had seemed like a timid peasant girl. “The power of the ideology,” Arnau would have recited. “With it we will fell giants and raise mountains.”
“Or the innkeepers will beat us up, and the galley slaves will stone us.”
“Oh, what an unbeliever is this girl of mine! And what have I done to deserve this? I’ll have to denounce you to the committee head for your ideological vacillations.”
And they would both laugh, a moment before Arnau brought it to an end with his kisses, and the squeezes that pushed her toward the bed or the living room couch, or even the carpet, a threadbare, faded rag where they had made love so many times in the tumbledown apartment in the Vallecas neighborhood of Madrid.
Elisa tried to drive off the memories by rubbing her eyes compulsively. She should not let herself think of those scenes, when she found herself in a situation in which it was so impossible to make them come true. She concentrated hard to drive out the image of Arnau naked before her, slowly moving downward until his mouth reached her sex to pay it homage, while he held her waist with both hands, softly pressing her against the wall.
“Don’t rub your eyes like that. You’ll give yourself an infection.”
Elisa smiled and nodded. Arnau was looking at her suspiciously.
“What are you thinking about?”
“That you’re right, that times have changed. They don’t send ignorant pregnant young things to throw Molotov cocktails into the Legion recruitment center anymore.”
Arnau’s anger flared up again. “I don’t know how you can say that. We were the first to regret that, Adalberto more than anyone, as the entire world knows.”
“Of course. I didn’t mean to offend anyone, least of all Adalberto’s memory. I was just remembering that the one having an abortion in prison was Marisa. Not you, not the other male comrades, not even me, who would have been more sensible…”
The drug took two weeks to arrive, after all the barriers that separated normal life from prison life had been overcome, and had no effect. It didn’t even cause the light bleeding it should have.
“Strong and healthy, like a Galician peasant. That baby is stuck in you like a parasite…”
But now Octubre wasn’t hurling insults or shouting. Worry had eaten away at everyone who knew about the problem: Juana Parroto, Octubre, Elisa, and Pilar Laborde, who had been the contact in obtaining the abortive. With her brow furrowed and a resolute expression, Octubre decided.
“We’ll have to use a cotton catheter. Your sister has to get us several.”
They separated silent and troubled. Marisa had said nothing. She had accepted the decisions of the others, recognizing their better judgment, but everyone knew they were facing a serious problem. The women, who had retained their dignity through the arrest, the torture, and several months or years of prison, were terrified by the unforeseen situation. Only Octubre had witnessed an illegal abortion in a shack in her neighborhood, but she hadn’t been the one to carry it out. What she didn’t say was that she herself had been the patient, and that, after using catheters for two weeks, with a neighbor changing them for her once in a while, she only survived the infection thanks to her physical tenacity and the penicillin a doctor friend prescribed for her when she was already trembling with fever in bed. Now she looked with growing worry at Marisa, and, like the others, was afraid of being discovered. If Marisa became ill, besides the physical risk she would run, an abortion would be added to the list of their crimes. As if they all didn’t have enough complications already.
Elisa stopped Octubre in the hallway and asked her, “Do you think it will be safe?”
“I have no idea. I guess we’ll be able to give her an abortion, but who knows what may happen afterward.”
Octubre observed Elisa’s face as the color left it, her trembling lips and hands, and was surprised. She took her by the shoulders and tried to make light of the situation.
“You’ve got to be more brave, girl! No one would ever know you’re an activist in the PC-ML and that you’ve been through General Security and in jail for a year and a half!”
“Maybe that’s why.”
And Elisa quickly turned toward the staircase leading to the infirmary. Octubre didn’t know whether she was referring to the fear of another arrest or to the way the party would be discredited if Marisa’s story became known. Elisa didn’t want to clarify her enigmatic phrase. She was too afraid of everything all at once.
The cotton catheters arrived within a week. It was the first time Elisa had seen those narrow strips of white cloth, rolled up inside a sterilized plastic bag. She watched the procedure, hypnotized. Octubre handled the catheters with inexpert but steady hands, and Marisa let herself be manipulated with resignation. Juana and Elisa looked on without doing anything. She didn’t think of holding Marisa’s hand or comforting her in some other way that would show her affection and solidarity. She stared at Octubre’s hands, which probed without skill to introduce the catheter into the dark space of Marisa’s insides.
“Well, I think that’s it. Now we have to wait.”
“That’s it? But then…” Elisa said.
“Yes, we have to wait for her to dilate. What did you think?”
“Well, I thought you were going to do the abortion all at once.”
“With a fabric strip? Oh, dear, aren’t you an expert in the ways of the world. Don’t you have any idea how this works?”
Elisa shook her head and saw out of the corner of her eye the interest with which Marisa listened to Octubre’s explanations while she got dressed. She doesn’t know, either, she thought.
“Well, this is older than walking upright,” grunted Octubre. “The catheter swells up with the heat and moisture of the vagina, and then, to expel it, the womb will start to contract and will expel the embryo with it.”
“How long does that take?”
“It depends. A few hours or a few days.”
Elisa’s surprise was shared by Marisa, though she said nothing.
“Yes, sometimes two weeks.”
“With the catheter inside the whole time?”
“Yes, of course. The Holy Ghost helps in giving birth, but not in having abortions,” she joked while she washed her hands in the sink.
“But it will get dirty…” She didn’t know how to express her doubts and scruples. She had never had a conversation like that with anyone, much less in front of the concerned party.
“That’s the problem, my friend. That’s why there are so many infections. If it takes a long time we’ll change her catheter, but it shouldn’t be handled a lot because the infection is in there waiting. Anyway, we shouldn’t be talking like this because we’ll scare Marisa. Thank God for penicillin. Don’t worry, my girl. We won’t let anything bad happen to you. Before that we’ll go to the prison doctor.”
“Oh, no!” Marisa shouted. “Not that, ever! Promise me!”
“Well, it wouldn’t be pleasant, but if there’s no other way it’s better to have one more charge against us — we already have so many — than to let something bad happen to you.”
“No! No way! That would be terrible for my party!”
Octubre looked at her seriously. “Do you really mean that in order to not compromise your party, you don’t want us to call a doctor, no matter what?”
“Of course I mean it.” Marisa’s face bore witness to it.
“You’re ready to die, rather than inconvenience your party?”
“I’ve always been willing to die for my party.” And this time Marisa had transformed. When she stood up she had grown, and her dedication made her beautiful.
“Fine, but keep in mind that if you die the whole story will be discovered, and your party will be screwed, anyway, and we’ll get that many more years behind bars, so, I can’t promise you anything, girl. Besides, I’ve always been against such useless heroism. By the way, where’s your man?”
Marisa had begun to sulk. She had to consider Octubre’s objection. She would have answered rudely if Elisa hadn’t made a gesture for her to keep quiet.
“I don’t know.”
“No, and I don’t want to know, either. I just thought you could tell him what’s happening, if you can get in contact with him.”
“No, I can’t and I wouldn’t even if I could. I shouldn’t worry him with my problems now. He’s fighting in a very dangerous position and needs peace. What’s happening to me is stupid, and he’s risking his life.”
“You’re risking your life, too. And this stupid mess concerns him more than anyone.” With the last word, Octubre went back to her cell.
“I think it will be better if we go to bed and try to sleep. If anything happens to you, call me right away.”
Elisa lay down with the feeling that she would not sleep. For the first few minutes she anxiously watched Marisa’s motionless form in the next bed. The lamp on the nightstand was on and she didn’t dare to turn it off. The entire dormitory was asleep. They had waited until two in the morning, when even the night owls had gone to bed, to carry out the procedure, and they posted Juana in the hallway that connected the dormitory with the iron and glass door that led into the first floor foyer of the political prisoner unit, to warn them in case an official came by. It wasn’t likely. The attendants only wanted their shifts to pass by as quietly as possible, and even more so with regard to the politicals. They only came to the politicals’ section at night if they were called, and then with a long delay. The fear of finding themselves with a riot made them ignore the first calls: they always seemed to harbor the hope that the caller would forget about it. Now, in the silence of the dormitory, contemplating Marisa, who seemed to be sleeping in spite of it all, Elisa felt dizzy, confused. For the first time in a year and a half she felt the oppression of prison. She was overcome by a weight on her sternum that didn’t let her breathe, a headache, an intense desire to cry, which they all knew as “prisonitis.” How would it all end up?
“I don’t know why you’re talking to me like that. It wasn’t my fault what happened to Marisa, or the party, or… I don’t know, Elisa, you’re acting strange this morning. Remembering things that happened so long ago…”
Arnau drummed his fingers on the table, which still had the remains of breakfast on it.
“You reminded me of it all with your even stranger visit. You’re talking to me about the party, and it takes me back to those times, the last years I was in the party. And talking about terrorism, I couldn’t help but think of Marisa.”
“So you did throw the Molotov cocktail.”
“Yes, I had two in my purse, but they didn’t give me time to throw them. The guys had already thrown theirs and a lot of smoke was starting to come out the window. You could see the soldiers inside choking and they couldn’t get out because there were bars on the window. The soldiers started coming out the door, just a few, but they were running way behind us, and then I threw the one cocktail I had ready really hard, and I let the other one go as I ran. They were faster than me, and they caught me right away.”
“And the other comrades?”
“They escaped. The soldiers were busy with me, and they were ahead of me, and got lost at a crossroads right away.”
Marisa was satisfied to have contributed to her comrade’s escape. Elisa didn’t know if her boyfriend was among them, because Marisa didn’t say and those things could not be asked, but she understood that the satisfaction was the same whether or not Adalberto was one of the ones saved.
One of them always typed on Octubre’s typewriter while they spoke in order to prevent a clear recording in case the microphones they feared really existed.
“May I ask you why you chose the Legion recruitment center for the attack?”
Octubre clearly disagreed, and Marisa became tense. She didn’t want to talk about party activity with someone who didn’t belong to it, and only because of the great confidence Octubre inspired and which Elisa showed toward her had Marisa told her the best known part of the story. But she wasn’t willing to argue with her about strategic decisions, which were only for the leaders.
“The party decided it,” she replied neutrally, and was surprised when Elisa intervened.
“You can tell her why that decision was made.” Elisa added apologetically, “Maybe you can convince her.”
Marisa understood. It was a question of ideological propaganda. Resigned, and even happy, she replied, “The Legion recruitment center is one of the places where the army’s power is concentrated, and so it’s the most fascist. It was the army that had the most important role in the repression during and after the Civil War. It’s one of our objectives in the people’s war.”
Octubre watched her without losing patience. She seemed to feel tenderness for the peasant girl who recited political orders with so much confidence.
“The young men there had nothing to do with the Civil War, and at the recruitment center there are no more than six of the most unlucky soldiers. They enter the Legion because they have nowhere else to fall down dead: lumpen, nothing more than lumpen. Unemployed, ex-delinquents, reformatory and brothel boys. That’s who you directed military action against. Why didn’t you go kill the general?”
Marisa was confounded. It was probably the first time anyone had told her the Legion soldiers were lumpen. It also would have been the first time anyone had called into question the fairness of the military objective of the party in her presence. She was speechless. She turned to Elisa, looking for help, but found her in a similar state of mind. Octubre looked at the two of them darkly, and for a few minutes there was only a great silence.
But that was before they gave Marisa the abortion and long before she began to bleed. She had just come to the prison and still hadn’t been to the infirmary to be treated for the beating she had gotten during her detention.
Marisa began to bleed in the early morning of the same night, and called to Elisa in terror. Elisa looked at the stained sheets, paralyzed. Octubre immediately woke up and told them that it was normal and she supposed it meant it was going well. She gave her a sanitary napkin and they all began to wait again, this time without sleeping. But the end didn’t come. The bleeding was slight, and Marisa felt only some small tugs in her womb. The whole day went by that way, and at night Octubre decided to change the catheter. That time the procedure took longer. The blood kept her from seeing the right place to insert the strip of fabric, and Marisa’s face contracted as she tried to keep back her moans.
The second night Elisa noticed Marisa was stirring in bed, unable to sleep. In the morning she had a fever. After a brief secret meeting, the women involved decided to go to the infirmary to ask for a dose of penicillin or sulphamide, with some excuse. Octubre obtained two pills, because the nurse respected only her enough to give it to her without a prescription. They felt more and more powerless. One dose was only the beginning. They would have to give one every three hours if the fever persisted. Marisa was lucid, though somewhat groggy, but the others didn’t want to weigh her down with their worries. They gave her the pills and told her to sleep. Octubre wondered whether it would be more effective for her to get up and walk, but the cold convinced them to keep her in bed. She might complicate her fever catching cold.
Elisa remembered the three days of Marisa’s abortion as an episode inserted into her life like a movie described by someone else who’d seen it. Marisa’s fever rose higher, and she became delirious. The other prisoners showed their concern that her comrades didn’t tell the doctor. Thanks to the common clandestine procedures, however, it was easy to convince them that they could not let the officials know, and beg them to keep the secret. Several offered to get penicillin from the nurse, and five or six took turns to avoid the authorities’ suspicion. Elisa stayed beside Marisa’s bed throughout the three days because she didn’t know what else to do. It was impossible for her to think of anything else. She felt suffocated by fear, by a palpable and more and more anguished fear that Marisa was dying. When she reflected on it, much later, she could never say whether it was natural compassion for another human being, solidarity for a party comrade or an acute selfishness in the face of the new problems that would arise if they finally had to tell the prison doctor.
The third night Marisa soaked the mattress with blood, while she sweated oceans under the cold cloths Octubre’s charitable hand placed on her forehead. And suddenly, when they thought everything was lost, Marisa seemed to get better. Her fever went down. The hemorrhage continued, but she felt more alert. The abortion was finished. For a few days, they were able to provide her with some more doses of penicillin. Then, her strong peasant constitution did the rest.
Arnau looked hardly able to control his impatience. He removed the cups and stacked them into each other, heaped up the crumbs on the tablecloth and crossed his legs compulsively.
“So then, do you intend to help us, or will memories of the past keep you from it? In the end, Elisa, you too went along with terrorism in its moment. Besides, remember that we called it ‘the people’s revolutionary war.’ During the dictatorship, things were different. That’s why we’ve changed our strategy now. After Franco’s death, armed struggle didn’t make sense. We already talked about that, back then.”
“Yes, it’s true, I went along with armed struggle.” She stared at Arnau for a few seconds and, as if remembering something very far away in time, she added, “If the party had ordered me to, I would have taken a weapon and killed anyone.”
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No Turning Back is available in Kindle at Amazon and in paperback anywhere fine books are sold.