The Back Room

by Carmen Martin Gaite

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Back Room by Carmen Martín Gaite was published in Spanish (as El Cuarto de Atrás) in 1978 and later in English in 1983. It is narrated by a writer named Carmen who, at the novel's outset, is in her room, unable to sleep. Rather out of nowhere, a man with a black hat arrives at her door and claims to have an interest in interviewing her.

The man in the black hat begins to ask Carmen questions about her childhood; at this point, the novel takes the form of a dialogue. Carmen is questioned, for example, about whether she envied the Spanish dictator Franco’s daughter. Soon after, Carmen begins a series of internal reminiscences of her childhood in Madrid. She recalls how she learned to read and write in a “back room”; she remarks that her mother was not an average housewife and desired to teach her daughter about literature.

Next, Carmen offers the interviewer tea and tells him about her experience while watching Franco’s funeral on television. Carmen notices while watching the funeral that Franco’s daughter has aged. Carmen reflects that Franco’s government is the only one she ever knew. Franco’s death inspired her to write a book of her memories—a goal she never accomplished.

The telephone rings, and the interviewer requests that Carmen not announce that he is there. The woman on the other end of the phone accuses Carmen of being her husband’s mistress, claiming love letters as evidence. Carmen briefly contemplates writing a story about these events. After the phone call, Carmen returns to the interviewer and tells him about the island of Bergai: an imaginary place she invented with a childhood friend where they could have what they wanted instead of suffering the scarcity of goods that Spain experienced after the Civil War.

Suddenly, the wind blows open the door of Carmen’s deck, and the interviewer (whom readers learn is named Alejandro) goes to shut it. Carmen next falls asleep. She is awoken by her daughter returning from a party at five o’clock in the morning. Carmen, who does not remember going to bed, finds folders of writing on the table along with a golden box that the interviewer left there. Carmen’s daughter screams and asks her mother to kill a cockroach, but is asleep by the time Carmen returns to the room.

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