Book Review: La vida antes de marzo (2009)
By Fátima Serra, department of foreign languages
La vida antes de marzo (2009)—Life Before March—by Spanish film maker Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón portrays life in Spain before the train terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004. Two young men, Martín and Angel, are on board the Bagdad-Lisbon train in the year 2024. Both passengers tell each other their stories while they sample wines from the regions the train is passing through. The narrative becomes more animated as the wine consumption increases, giving the reader an intense, and at times humorous, account of the protagonists’ youth. As the narration progresses, the reader realizes that both men were connected to the tragic events of 2004, and that their life was intimately entangled with the new immigration trends in Spain, particularly Islamic immigration. Gutiérrez Aragón’s cinematic background is obvious in the photographic descriptions and straightforward dialogues which make the book an “easy” read without diminishing its literary value. The novel was awarded the Premio Herralde de novela in 2009.
Several authors have written about the events of March 11, 2004. Life before March stands out because it does not try to portray the pain or the actual facts behind the events. It is a universal approach to life, to the forces that motivate human beings to act in our global world. Gutiérrez Aragón states: “What I was interested in was the clash between the Islamic world, so far removed from our culture, and an Asturian kid—not so innocent—and a plot that many do not understand.”
Martín and Angel bring their memories to life, not so much to preserve the past, but to comprehend the fast-paced multicultural global present that inevitably unfolds in front of them, like the train without stops in which they are travelling, a metaphor of life and death in our changing world. We are all on the same planet, in the same train, from Bagdad to Lisbon. Through their prism we learn about life in the countryside and mining regions of northern Spain; dysfunctional families, mafia-like provincial discos, drugs and underemployment in the city, and, most importantly, the world of immigration, specifically of Islamic immigration.
The two kids’ lives are inevitably entangled with the life of Islamic newcomers to Spain. Through their account we experience the cultural assimilation of immigrants that happens when they settle in a different country: Asal does not want an arranged marriage for herself; Serhane and his friends gather for paella on Sundays and Mohammed speaks a funny mix of broken official Spanish and the regional Asturian language, Bable. As fascinating as this is, the interesting fact is the transculturation that Martin and Angel undergo. Martin not only falls madly in love with the Moroccan Asal, but she is also the reason why he is aboard this train in 2024. Angel, nicknamed El Moro, becomes a “brother” to Serhane, the Tunisian. When he reveals to Martin the last unimaginable favor he was asked to perform in 2004 on behalf of his Northern African friends he says: “I was not afraid of the magrebíes. I, myself, was a Moro.” (221)
Life before March skillfully immerses us in this complex and unstoppable two-way cultural assimilation, like that Bagdad-Lisbon train that unites the East and the West. Martín and Angel’s lives could not have been any other way. The global world brings us inevitably closer. Cultural togetherness brings clashes, encounters, guilty parties, victims, destruction and love.