Even though I am Spanish, I am not the biggest fan of Spanish literature. In fact, it is very seldom that I pick up a book either written by a Spanish author or translated into Spanish. However, last March I enrolled on a course about ‘Women in Literature’ that ended up being ‘Women in Spanish Literature’. Some of the authors rang a bell while others I knew: it is one of those times when you know the names and the titles of their works, but you have never read any of the novels. It was with this frame of mind that I realised I had to read The Ages of Lulu (Las edades de Lulú in the original Spanish), a novel written in 1989 by Almudena Grandes.
What Goodreads says:
At just fifteen years old, Lulu, a “round, hungry little girl,” finds that her erotic cravings are already powerfully established when she is seduced by a family friend, Pablo, twelve years her senior. This initial encounter incites the violent power play that drives an adult Lulu through a series of increasingly titillating sexual exploits. Always fascinated by the thin line separating decency and morality from perversion, Lulu gains the courage to explore the darker side of her carnal desires—but as her forays become increasingly desperate, the world of illicit and dangerous sex threatens to engulf her completely.
A groundbreaking novel of sexual exploration, The Ages of Lulu sparked international controversy and was an overnight sensation when it was first published in Spain fifteen years ago. It won the Sonrisa Vertical Prize for erotic fiction, and was made into a film starring Javier Bardem.
Almudena Grandes was born in Madrid in 1960. She is known for her columns for the centre-left wing newspaper El País, where she explores current politics, friendship, family and whatever issue she thinks fit. She is also a member of Izquierda Unida (‘United Left’), Spain’s traditional left wing party. She writes novels, but has also published a few short story collections and plays.
The Ages of Lulu is an erotic novel and its importance for Spanish literature comes directly from the time of its publication. Spain was subjected to a fascist dictatorship from 1939 to 1975 under the rule of Coronel Francisco Franco and his party, the ‘Falange’. His dictatorship was informed by Catholicism and a national movement based on the Castilian culture, and he tried to erase local traditions and languages. Opposing the dictatorship meant risking your life, and as a consequence many people just tried to survive as they could. Just to establish a parallel, think of early 20th century Ireland, and you will get a glimpse of what it was to live in Spain during the dictatorship.
This very brief historical context is important for the analysis of The Ages of Lulu due to the imposition of Catholic imaginary upon women during the dictatorship. Pilar Primo de Rivera – sister to the Falange founder – was in charge of the ‘Sección Femenina’ (‘Female Section’), an organisation that prescribed adequate behaviour and lifestyle for women. Due to the importance of Catholicism, the most influential image for women during the dictatorship was Virgin Mary, embodying the contradictions of being a virgin and a mother at the same time. For Spanish women born in the 20th century this meant a total lack of sexual education – except for a few who came from left-wing, powerful families and managed to buy the pill and condoms under the counter, risking imprisonment – and the imposition of virginal and supposedly pure values. This lead to a normalisation of a troubled relationship with female sexuality in which female desire was seen as dirty, and the label ‘whore’ was easily impossed on anyone who did not supress their libido. There was a high rate of teenage pregnancy, single motherhood was forbidden and despised and the image of the Angel in the House was expected of married women and mothers.
Once Franco was dead and Spain slowly caught up with the rest of the West, a new cultural movement emerged in Madrid called ‘La Movida’ in the 1980’s. To put it briefly, it was time to party after so many years of oppression, and ‘La Movida’ promised happiness and liberation along with parties, drugs, sex, and a lot of music. It was also a celebration of fluid sexualities and homosexuality – punished by the regime with the death penalty – and it aimed to break away with traditional gender stereotypes and role models with the celebration of travestism.
The Ages of Lulu (1989):
When Grandes wrote and published The Ages of Lulu in 1989 Spain had been enjoying a democracy for 14 years, but moral values and certain codes of behaviour inherited from the regime were still very much present in everyday life. Sadly, they still are in 2016. So, the publishing of an erotic novel, narrated on the first person by a sexually active and desiring teenage girl became a national sensation and success. The novel is a bildungsroman told from a sexual perspective and follows Lulu from her first sexual encounter to a final one. In between you can find stories about being a daughter, a mother and a friend.
It is now time to come clear about the novel: it is very dated and dependant on the context it was written on. I found it provocative just for the sake of being so, and some scenes surprised me in a bad way. Lulu’s relationship with Pablo, the boy she has her first sexual encounter with, is still quite patriarchal and victim to an imaginary in which grown women’s sexual desire is not quite developed yet. That is, Lulu is aware of her sexual desire and she satisfies it with men and women alike, but the novel portrays this sexual desire as a rebellion against her Catholic and conservative education. As Foucault would say a rebellion does not make you free since it compels you to do the exact opposite of what you have been told to do. It just a masquerade, a reversal of the dominant discourse. But, at the time the novel was published this rebellion was the only way in which women could openly explore their sexuality and feel free.
As a consequence the novel feels like reading a teenager’s diary, a rebel without a cause (the ending is very conservative), a need for attention and a need for freedom. And I still liked it, especially the first half. Grandes makes a huge effort to inscribe sex and sexuality into everyday life, something is still absent from contemporary fiction, and produces a counter-discourse that assures the female reader it is OK to have sexual needs in whatever form they present themselves. The novel could very well be related to the 1980’s and 1990’s texts feminist and philosophical texts that exposed normative sexuality as an opening of located orifices as rites of passage.
Although dated, The Ages of Lulu is a landmark in Spanish fiction and it should be considered a masterpiece of the post-dictatorship feminist movement. Despite its conservative background ideas and some gross – yet very interesting – scenes, the novel depicts the carpe diem state of mind of the 1980’s, when Western culture finally entered Spain and generations who had been oppressed for decades were granted the right to do as they wanted. In this case it meant lots of sex, drugs and music. And in this case it was what the country needed.
While I was reading the novel I felt that maybe this is what readers who are disappointed with Fifty Shades of Grey should read. Both novels present a young woman’s sexual life and their relationship with an older man who tries to subject them. The Ages of Lulu is not shy in portraying non-normative sexual behaviours and practices, and in doing so is trying to inscribe them as an option, rather than a quirk. However, I will say again that the novel takes great pleasure in presenting these practices – like a rebellious teenager who knows she is doing something forbidden – and successfully translates that pleasure to the reader.
I would highly recommend The Ages of Lulu to anyone, especially women readers, in order to explore how oppression and extreme fake moral values can end up producing the opposite of what they wanted. However, if I took something from reading the novel – and this is the main reason why I am publishing this review – is to be happy and enjoy life. Grandes has reminded me that I am lucky to have the freedom to explore the many, many options and paths that life has to offer which are not planned or scheduled: they can only be lived through.