CategoryCatalan

Death in Spring – Mercè Rodoreda

Mercè Rodoreda (1908-83) was a new name to me, but more or less everything I’ve read about her says that she’s widely considered to be the foremost Catalan writer of the 20th century. Death in Spring was originally published posthumously, in 1986. Martha Tennent’s English translation was published in the US by Open Letter Books, and now it has been issued by Penguin in the UK as first in a series called Penguin European Writers.

Our narrator is a boy living in a mountain village with a number of strange, sometimes brutal customs: every year, a man is chosen to swim under the village in order to check that it will not be washed away by melting snow; this may result in disfigurement or death if the man is dashed against the rocks. Pregnant women are blindfolded from fear that their unborn children will take on the appearance of any men the women may see. When a villager nears death, they are sealed inside a tree with cement poured down their throat; this happens to the narrator’s father towards the start of the book.

Images of death, decay and decline run through Rodoreda’s novel, along with a vivid sense of the natural world, all written in calm and measured prose. Here, for example, is a description of autumn arriving in the village:

The sickly stems that had held the leaves all summer were now devoid of water, and they thudded to the ground as well. The leaves were blown down and swept away. We waited for the last to drop so we could rake them into piles and set fire to them. The fire made them scream. They screamed in a low voice, whistled even lower, and rose in columns of blue smoke. The smell of burnt leaves pervaded houses and air. The air was filled with the cessation of being.

The cover blurb notes that Death in Spring can be read as an “allegory for life under dictatorship”, and I can absolutely see that: those ritualistic customs, for example, have a damaging hold over the village, and the only person who seems to understand this (or simply to be willing to speak against them) is a prisoner. Equally, though, the novel is a powerful portrait of an individual trying to find his way through life in a place where there’s excessive direction and little guidance.

Book details

Death in Spring (1986) by Mercè Rodoreda, tr. Martha Tennent (2009), Penguin, 150 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

From the Archives: Spanish Lit

Today, for Spanish Lit Month, a look back through my archives. This is a list of all my reviews of books translated from the languages of Spain, in reverse order of posting. It’s not a huge number (in the early years of this blog, I didn’t read many translations), but I wanted to link to everything in one place. So – positive or negative, short or long – it’s all here. Just to clarify a few things: all books are translated from Spanish unless otherwise indicated; some links go to external websites; and anything labelled ‘note’ is a few lineswithin a longer round-up post.

Maria Barbal, Stone in a Landslide (1985/2010)

“I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days…” (89)

Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide (first published in Catalan in 1985, and now available in English for the first time, thanks to Peirene Press) is the life story of Conxa, who is sent away as a child, in the early years of the twentieth century, to live with and work for her aunt and uncle. The years pass, she falls in love with a young man named Jaume, they marry and have children – and then their lives are disrupted by the Spanish Civil War. But, of course, life continues beyond even this.

Like Laura McGloughlin’s and Paul Mitchell’s translation (which has the kind of precise simplicity that deflects attention away from it), Conxa’s life both is and isn’t as ordinary as it appears, in the sense that all lives can be – and are, in their own way – extraordinary at times, just as a simple stone can be part of an extraordinary landslide. Conxa’s life is one lived largely for, and in relation to, other people: right at the start, she is sent away from home because there isn’t enough room for her in the house; when she falls in love with Jaume, she becomes a different person and defines herself by him (“Now I could only be Jaume’s Conxa” [42]); growing old comes almost as a surprise to Conxa, because she has been so used to seeing her children grow, and suddenly they’re adults.

What I find most striking about Stone in a Landslide is the way that key historical events are experienced (or not, as the case may be) through the domesticity of Conxa’s existence; Jaume is political, but Conxa has no knowledge or interest, and it’s a rude awakening for her when history finally intrudes on her life.

Stone in a Landslide is a quiet study of a life, a life whose treasures vanish all too soon, before the woman living it fully grasped what they were. But the book remains, and its treasures are plain to see.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of Stone in a Landslide: Winstonsdad; Novel Insights; A Common Reader.
Peirene Press

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