DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda (trans. Josep Miquel Sobrer). Bison Books, 226 pp. $24.95.
Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda (trans. Martha Tennent ). Open Letter, 150 pp. $14.95.
The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda (trans. Martha Tennent ). Open Letter, 255 pp. $15.95.
The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda (trans. David H. Rosenthal). Graywolf, 208 pp. $14.00.
The lodestar of modern Catalan letters died in 1983, with little recognition outside her homeland. In part it was the twentieth century that had occluded her. She spent her most productive years exiled by choice from Franco’s Spain, every few years sending home another manuscript to a country that at best discouraged her language, at worst outlawed it in the street. (DON’T BARK, read the signs in Barcelona government offices; SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THE SPANISH EMPIRE.) Her later years saw the return of Catalan prizes and Catalan bestsellers, and she regularly claimed both distinctions. But she continued to write at a double remove—from an anonymous existence in Geneva, for a half-clandestine reading community—and this, as much as her uncompromising style or subject, committed her in life to a reception in the minor mode.
Today, of course, Spain is a country whose constitution enshrines minority languages as “objects of especial respect and protection,” and the Autonomous Republic of Catalonia now holds up Mercè Rodoreda as a national treasure. Barcelona offers commemorative sculptures, libraries, gardens in her name; government-supported institutes sponsor conferences and translations; a yearlong festival marked her 2008 centennial. Her international champions include Gabriel García Márquez, who has set the deslumbramiento—blinding brilliance—of her prose beside that of Juan Rulfo. Yet she has not, somehow, found the same readership in English as the younger cadre of male Iberians—Goytisolo, Marías, Lobo Antunes—to say nothing of her closer contemporaries, Saramago and Cela. Apart from two recent, welcome titles from Open Letter, her English catalog has drifted in and out of print. To be sure, fame is a black box. But there is no question that Rodoreda is a uniquely difficult writer—not in her sentences, which are as clean as any in the century, but in the starkness of her emotional climate. Her subject, both in the earlier domestic books and the later irrealist ones, is the destructiveness of desire, the brutishness of power, the primacy of hunger and death. She was not alone, in or out of Spain, in choosing these topics. Her particular power and challenge lies in the style that she created to address them: a fearsomely pure deployment of words, empty of rhetoric, in which the beauty of the world shines so clearly as to seem a kind of cruelty.
She is a hard author to pin down. It is impossible, for instance, not to think of her as a feminist when the suffering of the powerless, and of women in particular, commands so much of her attention. Yet in a late interview she declined the label. In her opinion, she said, feminism was “a little bit literatura.” To distance herself from literature is of course to take a literary position; here it is the modernist project, rejecting the literary structures of an earlier age. There are books whose events are not plotted, but simply drift through the everyday, or are knocked off course by incomprehensible blows from without; whose objects carry no meaning but their own inscrutable existences; whose characters include no heroes or villains, since every possible action hangs suspended in a neutral moral field. This is the mode of Flaubert, in most ways the mode of Proust and Joyce, and Rodoreda too makes it her own.
“I would like to say something about the innocence of my characters,” she writes in a late prologue.
Had I to appear as the coryphaeus in an imaginary ancient tragedy, I would approach the public and begin my recitation this way: ‘Before the sun, the clouds and les esteles—as Bernat Metge calls the stars (quantes esteles ha en lo cel)—I can swear that my parents made me innocent.’ But I am a person like others, laden with personalities, and perhaps the most marked of my multiple personalities is a certain kind of innocence that has consoled me in the world where I have been given to live. Wishing to write with a certain idiosyncrasy, I have cultivated over the years—and this is innocence—a kind of purity—which must mean, at heart, being oneself—with the fewest adulterations possible. I have cultivated a forgetting of everything that seemed harmful to my soul, and an admiration for those things that do me good: the ineffable moments given me by the quiet force of flowers, the slow patience of precious stones, the purity of earth and the great abysses of the sky, at once so near and so far, where all the constellations shine and tremble.”
She has slipped from talking about her characters to talking about style, and her chosen images are both beautiful and inhuman. In particular the flowers, a favorite theme, are well glossed by Beckett’s insight into Proust: that his people are flora rather than fauna, and follow their desires with as little moral sense as budding plants. Innocence is blind, and need not exclude even murder, as Rodoreda’s fiction discovers more than once. A lifelong gardener, she had no illusions about botanical struggles for water and light. In one of her novels a girl dies impaled on a laurel branch; elsewhere a boy responds to his mother’s beating by planting himself up to the knees, hoping to sprout roots and leaves; her last book is about a village where men are ritually murdered and stuffed into trees. The laurel, certainly, points to Apollo and Daphne. But where Ovid uses metamorphosis as an escape hatch, to be invoked when divine lust or wrath have carried matters past any possible moral balance, Rodoreda does not see nature as a state of repose. Still her love of a beautiful flower is real. And since the distinction between nature and culture is unimportant to her, she also lavishes description on jewels and clothes, furniture, dishes, household linens—in short, all of the domestic articles that a feminist of her generation might have rejected as shackles or mystifications. She is a very hard author to pin down.
There was an early Rodoreda, separated by twenty years and two wars from the author whose books are read today. Mercè Rodoreda i Gurguí was born in 1908 to a bookish, lower-middle-class family in the Barcelona suburb of Sant Gervasi. An only child, she quit school at age ten and finished her education in the family library. Her grandfather died when she was thirteen, and her uncle Joan, fourteen years her senior, returned from Argentina with a small fortune. They fell in love, received a papal dispensation, and married on her twentieth birthday. The following year a son was born.
The teenage Rodoreda had expected marriage and motherhood alone to satisfy her, the Barcelona of the thirties held other doors open to women. Her literary career began in 1932, a year after the Spanish republic, with a novel titled Sóc una dona honrada? (“Am I an Honorable Woman?”, untranslated). She paid to have it published—which is to say, property laws being what they were, her husband paid. More remunerative work followed, largely through magazines; by the time the war started, she was hosting conferences on “Woman and Revolution” and writing propaganda articles for the Republic. Her novels of this decade—there were five in all—have been called “psychological” in style, which is one way of saying that they don’t yet read like Mercè Rodoreda. In later life she refused to have any republished except Aloma (1938, untranslated), the last and most successful, and this only after she had reworked the prose from beginning to end.
Aloma is both autobiographical—the story of a lower-middle-class girl of twenty-three, something like her creator, who falls into an ill-advised love affair with her brother-in-law—and deeply bookish. Each of the twenty short chapters takes an epigraph which might come from Boccaccio or Proust, Elective Affinities or The Sexual Tragedy of Leo Tolstoy. Aloma’s own name is taken from Ramón Llull, the medieval originator of Catalan literature. Amid these precocious touches from a writer still in her twenties, a violent imagination occasionally comes alive to sound the themes of entrapment and victimhood. Aloma’s opening challenge, “Love makes me sick!”, is made literal in the story of a stray cat who is assaulted by the neighborhood tom and repeatedly births her litters in the backyard, making so much noise that a neighbor finally clubs her to death. The cat returns to Aloma in a dream, now wearing shoes and glasses, and implores her, “Don’t let them trick you, don’t get married, read, read….”
There is nothing subtle in this sequence, but its placement at the start of a coming-of-age story is striking, to say the least. Rodoreda is already suspicious of literatura as a maker of ideologies, and she has Aloma take the cat’s advice but take it badly. The book she chooses is a serial romance; as in other corrective fictions, it leads to a disenchanting real-life affair. By the time that Aloma escapes, pregnant, into the city’s underworld, she has resolved to join those “girls who face life without illusions.” Something like that is the young Rodoreda’s sense of authorial vocation—though Aloma herself, it is implied, will turn to a grimmer career.
There is, unfortunately, no barrier to reading Aloma as the author’s reflection on her own decade of marriage. Her literary activities had brought her into connection with Andreu Nin, an anarcho-syndicalist and man of letters whose Catalan translation of Anna Karenina ended up giving Aloma its first epigraph. Between the writers there was mutual esteem and friendship, perhaps more. A letter from Nin, contents unknown, appeared in Rodoreda’s household and prompted a terrible scene that concluded with her husband throwing himself at her feet and kissing them—a gesture that finds queasy echoes in her later stories of unhappy marriage. In 1937 she separated from her family. The war had flared; Nin was detained on the Ramblas, probably by NKVD agents, and was never seen again. In 1939, a few months before the defeat of the Republic, Rodoreda boarded a government bibliobús and fled with ten other writers to France, where a kind of exiled artist’s colony had been set up at a chateau in Roissy-en-Brie. Aloma had just been awarded the Premi Crexell, and she found herself a celebrity. She seems to have made a scandalous impression at the chateau: she laughed loudly, she wore pants, she caught flies in the communal dining hall and drank them down with her wine. She started an affair with the writer Joan Prat, whose marriage was likewise in a state of separation. The writers’ colony soon broke up, in part because of the amorous disturbance, but Rodoreda and Prat would remain together throughout the war and for two decades afterward.
She left little account of the war years in France, other than what appears in her fiction. There is the story “Orléans, 3 Kilometers,” with its mesmerizing scene of the city in conflagration, and the descriptions in her novels of hunger: “what’s a crust of bread when you’re starving? Even to eat grass you’ve got to have the strength to go out searching for it.” They found themselves in Paris, Limoges, Bordeaux; they subsisted on her work as a seamstress. In a letter written at the war’s end she summed up, “I have met very interesting people and the sweater I am wearing is inherited from a Russian Jewess who killed herself with Veronal.” Soon after the peace, a mysterious paralysis took hold of her right arm and left her unable to write. She spent hours in the Louvre. She saw exhibitions by Klee and Mirò. A screening of Méliès’s Trip to the Moon affected her deeply. Later she would say that she gave up writing for twenty years because it seemed there were more important things to do, but this may be a selective memory. Displaced from fiction, her creative drive found outlet in painting watercolors and making collages. She also produced a small body of poetry; like other exiles, she took Ulysses as her theme.
Prat found a position as a translator with UNESCO, and he and Rodoreda relocated to Geneva. They had some contact with the young Julio Cortázar, not yet the author of Rayuela, who impressed her with his sense of vocation: he had determined, he said, to spend as little of each year as possible earning money for subsistence, and to keep the rest for writing, music and travel. After four years of paralysis, she regained the use of her arm as inexplicably as she had lost it, and she and Prat came to an arrangement. They would live together, at a certain remove, since his work often took him to Vienna; her name would be Madame Prat as far as the neighbors were concerned; and he would see indefinitely to her financial needs so that she could take up writing again.
As Rodoreda’s fiftieth year approached, she began to publish stories with an exiles’ press in Mexico. In 1957 Spain lifted its ban on the Catalan printed word, and the following year she broke her long silence with the collection Vint-i-dos contes (“Twenty-Two Stories,” well represented in Martha Tennent’s Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda). These stories document a second apprenticeship, consciously undertaken by a writer not yet satisfied with her achievement. They vary widely in style and subject; what links them is their tone of disillusion. (Il·lusió: their favored word for happiness and pleasure, aspirations and dreams.) Many are quiet vignettes of lower-class Barcelona, with no plot other than the marking out of limits. At their strongest they are reminiscent of Dubliners, and conclude with the same gesture that, in Joyce, is doubtfully called “epiphany”: an apparition of cosmic sadness that exceeds the sufferer’s understanding and may frustrate representation entirely.
Not all narrators here are women, but where they are, they tend to follow Rodoreda’s basic story from Aloma forward: a woman meets a man, and unhappiness follows. The story of seduction, with its infinite possible variations, is played out deftly. The narrator of “Before I Die,” a free-spirited art student, is accosted by a man who claims that she has taken his café table. She throws her drink at him. He wipes his trousers. He makes her a gift of two doves, which she roasts and serves to him. The subsequent story of marriage, and the slow suffocation of becoming the lady of a house, is equally well drawn. After being bluntly told by a serving woman, “It’s not good to be sad,” the narrator concludes, “That was how I learned what they call seny,” invoking the word that Catalans have used for centuries to describe their own national character. Its connotations are of practicality, compromise, common sense: a slightly more worldly version of the innocence whose cultivation allows Rodoreda to get by in the world. Yet “Before I Die” turns out to be a story where seny is not enough, and finishes with an uncharacteristic turn to the melodramatic. The husband turns out to have a secret, becoming a villain, and the narrator’s heroism consists in rejecting him and life together. One feels that this is the kind of thing Rodoreda would later dismiss as literatura, and she will not indulge the mode again.
While writing these stories she was also conceiving four or five different novels: most of her remaining life’s work, in fact, which would take twenty-five years to write. The first to be completed, though late in publishing, was Jardí vora el mar (1967, “Garden by the Sea,” untranslated), a diffuse work in which an estate gardener stoically recounts the romantic intrigues of his masters and his daily work with the plants. The next was La plaça del Diamant (1962, “Diamond Square”), her first full-length masterpiece and still the most generally loved of her works. It was rendered into English by David H. Rosenthal, the best of her translators, as The Time of the Doves.
The breakthrough of this novel is the appearance of Rodoreda’s mature style. Though many earlier stories approach it, only here does her hard transparency find its full range. The narrator Natalia, another working woman, relates her experience simply but with fine modulations:
It was a calm, cloudy day. Whenever a ray of sunshine got through, the lady’s shawl would sparkle and so would her coat, which was fly-colored like Father Joan’s cassock. A gentleman coming the other way said hello to her and they stopped for a moment and I pretended to look in a shop window and I saw the lady’s face in the glass and she had big jowls like a dog and the lady started crying and suddenly she raised her arm a little and showed the gentleman the candles and they shook hands and both went on their way and I started following the lady again because it kept me company to watch her and to watch her shawl fluttering a little on each side in the breeze she made walking.
It reads like an anecdote being spoken aloud, but unobtrusively, without conversational markers. Whether the phrasal units are split into sentences or concatenated with “and” (the lightweight Catalan i), they are uniformly short, concrete, heavily weighted toward the physical and domestic, though they can extend to cover outbursts of emotion as well. Sentence by sentence, they work out the quality of innocence. To maintain that quality over the length of a novel shows magisterial restraint on the author’s part.
Natalia’s walk takes place at the book’s deepest trough, in a Barcelona flattened by war. She is gathering courage to buy a bottle of hydrochloric acid, which she plans to pour into her children’s mouths in order to save them from death by starvation. “I went down the stairs,” she says, “feeling like they were very long and ended in hell”; and then describes the tiles and the railing. Her innocence, if innocence is the word, is the solvent that allows heaven and hell to hang in suspension beside the mundane. Every twenty or thirty pages the narrative lifts its austerity long enough for a metaphor, and they are without exception stunners. “The main altar, all covered in golden lilies with gold-leaf stems and leaves, was a scream of gold pushed farther and farther up by the pillars until it reached the spires on the roof, which gathered up the scream and sent it on to heaven.” The same is true of the occasional surreal outbursts, not all of which can be attributed to Natalia’s hunger-addled imagination. When she first kisses her fiancé, the Lord appears in a cloud and, reaching out with long arms, shuts himself inside, as if closing a cupboard. Much later she will meet a flood of tiny red bubbles, like fish roe, containing the souls of the war dead.
The seduction plot is brutally brief in this instance. Natalia is accosted at a street festival by a young man, Quimet, who insists that she dance with him and says that she will be his wife by Christmas. With his monkey’s eyes, jealous caprices, suspicions of the devil and bouts of rage, Quimet is one of Rodoreda’s most unsettling creations, all the more so because of his wholly plausible fits of adolescent enthusiasm. One enthusiasm is for the Republic; another is for filling the house with birds that he plans to sell. These creatures, coloms in Catalan, are rendered differently in the two English translations: either it is The Time of the Doves, or else The Pigeon Girl. Joseph Conrad once complained that no English word is a word, that each has moral connotations blurring its edges. A dove is peace, fidelity in marriage, the carrier of the olive branch, the third person of the Trinity. A pigeon spreads disease and shits on statues. It is conscripted as a messenger or bred into grotesque shapes; it is inexterminable as the rat. A colom is all of the above. The ambivalence that these animals can carry in Catalan is what makes them the emblems of the book. They give Natalia her adopted name—Quimet dubs her Colometa—and they give her domestic plight its sensory correlative. It is obvious that they will never make money; Quimet gives away two of every three pairs; the house is full of their stink; they take over the rooftops, the children’s room; they scratch, they peck; strangest of all, they are also winged creatures and beautiful.
The doubleness of the coloms is of a piece with the novel’s general moral suspension, in which Natalia—incredibly—never condemns her appalling husband outright. It is not the case that, as Natasha Wimmer has written, Rodoreda’s women exhibit an “almost pathological lack of volition.” We see Natalia deliberate over two marriage proposals, and her choices, though questionable, are made at liberty; she must find work on her own; when she decides that life inside a dovecote is unbearable, she personally destroys the enterprise by shaking the eggs lifeless—a campaign she refers to, without irony, as “the great revolution.” That is at least as much volition as one expects in, say, an Edith Wharton heroine. What Natalia almost never does is express judgment. Her two marriages are both made with misgivings; as we read, we feel that one turns out far better than the other. But Rodoreda understands that every home is both a shelter and a trap, and her business is not to resolve that doubleness. She never ceases to turn things about, showing the shelter in the trap, and the trap in the shelter, until a final account becomes impossible to conceive.
The events of revolution and war are likewise shown entirely from below. The phrase that Rosenthal translates as “the war started” reads in the original: va venir el que va venir. What came, came. By Natalia’s account, one might at first assume that nothing came but a gas outage. War is a disruption of the minutiae of life that it is her business to record; it is hunger and shortage of work. Though she suffers for having a husband who supports the Republic, to have her express support for the cause, which had meant so much to Rodoreda, would violate the book’s logic. Rodoreda’s people face the impersonal world not in the way of the bildungsroman, which integrates the self into that world, nor in the way of naturalism, which has the world destroy the self, but through a simple juxtaposition, always tentatively posed. La plaça del Diamant ends as if it were a comedy, with a wedding that ought to be a conciliatory ritual. But Natalia’s son has started his military service and is dancing with the fascist uniform on, and her daughter has inherited Quimet’s monkey eyes and demonic aspect: “that thing that’s so hard to describe but it’s all to make you suffer.” The sense of wonder that marks the great writers comes, in this book, by way of an extraordinary fictional effect: the sense that no piece of it could stand for anything other than itself.
Two more novels followed in the next decade, both more or less realist. El carrer de les Camèlies (1966, translated by Rosenthal as Camellia Street, out of print) teases out the hint of picaresque in La plaça del Diamant—the unpredictable events, the alliances suddenly formed and broken—and makes it into a fully realized structural principle. Cecilia C., another narrating innocent, is made to repeat the seduction plot again and again, in variously extreme modes; among other things the book is a study in male jealousy. We often see Cecilia kept under lock and key—in one harrowing sequence she is continually drugged—and it says much for Rodoreda’s stylistic integrity that of all the beings in Cecilia’s world, only the author seems never to exploit her. The book’s turning point comes when Cecilia decides to make her pattern of liaisons into an explicit business. In other hands this might read cynically, as a harlot’s progress. Rodoreda treats it with the same ambivalence as her earlier subjects, and once again what should structurally be a happy ending turns strange and sad.
Mirall trencat (1974, translated by Josep Miquel Sobrer as A Broken Mirror) is a quite different major work, constructed to look, at least in its beginning, like a nineteenth-century family chronicle. A marriage is made, an inheritance is secured, a house is founded, and then—the novel’s great surprise—nothing happens but life, and the slow transition into death. Along the way we pass all the components of melodrama: theft, adultery, concealed parentage, murder, the possibility of incest. The war too makes a background appearance. But the book is so determined not to assemble these elements into a consecutive plot that its effect is of a series of set pieces: serving girls bathing outdoors, the aged master straightening the spines in his library, and again and again the moment of death, since we do see most of the characters arrive at their ends. The reader expecting a genuine nineteenth-century novel may find this a tedious business. But Rodoreda has been master of her form for some time now, and the project of Mirall trencat, like that of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, is the slow disassembly of the nineteenth century. She refuses to mete out rewards or punishments; she will mark no act as an absolute transgression. In the last chapters the human world fades entirely away, ceding place to the animal and vegetable kingdoms, and to an ever-growing population of ghosts.
Written along the way was La meva Cristina i altres contes (1967, translated by Rosenthal as My Christina and Other Stories), a collection of unpredictable short works, most of them masterpieces. Many take place in a rural, vaguely premodern setting, where the fear of witchcraft stands in for the constraints of small-town life. People turn into animals, sometimes explicitly, sometimes obscurely. “A White Geranium Petal” is a tale of marital sadism made bearable, and even beautiful, by the intercession of a cat figure that wanders between life and death. The Cristina of the title story turns out to denote a whale that swallows the narrator and becomes his home for a number of years. In these stories, and in the concluding colloquies of Mirall trencat between the living and dead, the realist Rodoreda disappears for good.
Even Rodoreda’s champions sometimes shy away from the very late work. She has become a fabulist, which is new, and her bleakness is less mitigated than ever. Still it should be understood that her aims have not changed. It has been said that late Rodoreda is atypical in using male narrators—though of all her novels, only La plaça del Diamant and El carrer de les Camèlies are actually narrated by women. Again, it is said that the late works abandon her domestic focus, though all the elements of domestic according to Rodoreda—physical detail, physical labor, exhaustion and hunger, the doubleness of security and imprisonment—are still in place. If these elements project more starkly than before, they do so through the loosening of late style. As the artist’s vision turns hermetic, the hand lets drop certain canons of realism; as when the late Titian or Rembrandt blur darkness into their forms, or in the black paintings that were Goya’s endgame. Literature may have no better answer to the grotesques and devouring gods of the Quinta del Sordo than Rodoreda’s last two novels of metamorphosis and ritual sacrifice, wandering and war.
Quanta, quanta guerra… (1980, “So much war, so much…,” untranslated) is the story of Adrià Guinart, an adolescent who runs away from home to fight in the Civil War. The book is only obliquely a war novel. Fear and chance soon separate Adrià from his detachment, and he spends the rest of the book drifting through the ravaged country, begging or stealing his food, working odd jobs, receiving unprovoked beatings and listening to stories. Though his situation recalls the original Spanish pícaro, Lazarillo de Tormes, he is far less worldly. By the middle of the book he has chanced to inherit a property, and does what Lazarillo would never do, giving it away. His wandering innocence might better suggest Don Quijote, but again, Rodoreda’s grimness is not Cervantes’s cynicism. In many ways the book is closer to the chivalric romances that Lazarillo de Tormes and Don Quijote are supposed to have displaced. Adrià is a knight errant of the lowest social order, with no definite quest, wandering only because, as he puts it, “I liked to go my way alone so that I could look at things nice and slow.”
Early on Adrià is given a lady to champion: the girl Eva, whom he meets bathing in a river and thereafter in a handful of dreamlike scenes, some of which really are dreams. Their relations, though chaste, provide Adrià a catechism in love: “She didn’t like people who loved her. Loving her was like tying her up, like not letting her move. She needed to feel free to go where she wanted, and to help whoever she wanted, without the help turning into an obligation. I like you… because you don’t tie me up, and because you have that face.” One of Rodoreda’s innocents has finally met another. We are granted a glimpse, very rare in her work, of a relation between men and women that could end in something other than subjection; but first the war must be got through.
Many of Adrià’s encounters are historically situated: we see trucks and planes, soldiers and corpses. Others suggest folklore or myth. The influence of surrealism has grown so strong that at times—when Adrià, leaving home, sees his dead father holding his infant self in his arms, or when Eva’s eyes are described as violet spangled with gold—the novel seems to continue the vein of Spanish poetry that was cut short with García Lorca’s death. Adrià’s search for food and shelter is glossed by myths of wartime, one of which is worth quoting at length, if only because an English version is still lacking:
And then a rain of stars began to fall. I had never seen such a thing. They’re weeping because it’s war, said the old man, who had sat up and seemed to have always known me. The stars all fell to one side; the wind from the heights must have kept them from falling in a straight line. Many burned up in the air, others made it to the ground. There were pink ones and blue ones. They’re tired of seeing so much death. I’d always heard, I said, that a rain of stars announced a war; I never thought they could keep falling when the war had gone on so long. They come in different kinds: there are those that announce a war, and then these, that maybe are trying to say we’ve had enough and who knows when it will stop… wars, my boy, everyone knows when they start and no one knows when they finish. That’s something even children know, I said. What do you mean? That if everyone knows something, it’s not worth repeating. I’ve noticed how people talk just to talk, and always say the same things. What should they do instead? They should just say what’s worth saying, and that’s it. Life, if you don’t know how to remember it, is a repetition. Why don’t you want men to repeat themselves when they talk? Because I’m sick of it. Well, you mustn’t like it any better that you too are only a repetition.
Too much of this would ruin the book, and Rodoreda is careful to alternate these dialogues with concrete, fairy-tale encounters. We meet a man who carries an embalmed cat as his totem, a man who eats honey until he becomes round as a ball, a man who walks with his back to the sun and moon so as always to adore his shadow. Their life stories are given to Adrià as naturalist tales of unhappiness, each punctuated by a moment—“then the war came”—that wrenches life from its context. Each new episode is disconnected from that before.
The technique is new, but the intent of the earlier books remains: to write war from the bottom up, as a series of interruptions that can’t be forced into a story. Of course only a certain type of war novel is possible from these premises. The Tolstoyan survey of troop movements and council rooms is foreclosed. War, under this view, is a state too disruptive to fit inside history; it asserts itself as the cosmic force of Heraclitus, father and king of all, and breaks history apart. Juan Benet, whose novels portrayed the Civil War as a freezing of time, embodied this force in his mythical Numa, a guardian of the wilderness who annihilates all intruders with a shotgun. The end of Quanta, quanta guerra… confronts Adrià with a similar figure out of time, who is revealed—uniquely in Rodoreda’s work—as an instance of absolute evil. Here Eva’s lesson of freedom in love finds its letter-perfect reversal, and a few pages condense the old themes of domination and domestic entrapment into one of the blackest nightmares in European literature. To confront it, either in opposition or in redemption, is as senseless as confronting the war itself. Adrià responds in the only way he can. No further task is left him but to bury the dead, and to return to a home that may not remain.
Rodoreda’s last novel was an intermittent labor of more than twenty years, and remained unfinished on her death. Though her editors have assembled a compact reading text of La mort i la primavera (1986, “Death and Spring,” translated as Death in Spring by Martha Tennent), it may well be that the book is necessarily partial, unfinishable in the manner of Kafka’s longer narratives. The setting is another ahistorical village; the form this time is a mad ethnography of its social practices. Pregnant women are made to wear blindfolds so that they will not fall in love with other men. A single prisoner is punished for theft by being kept in a cage until he begins to neigh, at which point he is said to have lost his humanity. The village is placed above a subterranean river, and every year a man must swim the underground passage, suffering mutilation of his face, to ensure that the supporting rocks are not being washed away. When the villagers approach their deaths they are taken to a forest, where pink cement is poured into their mouths to prevent the soul from escaping with the last breath. Once they are choked lifeless they are entombed upright in trees, which gradually digest them.
Of all Rodoreda’s books this is the most static. The published version arranges the village descriptions around a skeletal plot in which the narrator, a boy of fourteen, sees his father die and marries his sixteen-year-old stepmother, a naif with a withered arm. They make inconclusive gestures at upending the social order, throwing away the coloring for the cement and rearranging the markers in the forest cemetery; later the narrator suffers a more concerted ostracism, and is finally made to swim the underground river. Still these have the feeling of temporary deviations, and do nothing to diminish the sense of the village itself as timeless protagonist. “I can begin the story of my life wherever I wish,” says the boy; “I can tell it differently… I cannot remove anything or add anything.” In an alternate arrangement of Rodoreda’s fragments, he would have lost his status as sole narrator.
When the English Death in Spring was published, some American reviews, seeking a context for its extremity, compared it to Blood Meridian. The comparison does not go deep. McCarthy’s is a frontier story, which is to say that it is about the edges of empire, and its version of Mister Kurtz, like the original, plays out the fantasy of a civilized intellect dropped into a wasteland and made a god. Rodoreda’s violence, by contrast, is institutional. She makes no claims about the human state beneath its social veneer, since her society is not a veneer but a structure of force legitimized by myth. This is not to say that her people are automata; many of the villagers, for instance, question the practice of murder by cement. But there is no outside to the law of violence. The distinction between nature and culture has been obliterated. Not only do humans engage in animalistic struggle; nature itself has taken on the human qualities of ritual and malice. The local bees are said to possess the use of reason, deliberately pursuing people and carrying pieces of gravel to steady themselves in the wind. A local black bird, the “mourner,” lays an annual clutch of three eggs, which it then yields to an invading white bird—though if the white bird is slow to take over, the black bird will crush its own eggs or peck the hatchlings to death. Once the eggs have hatched, the black bird kills the white bird and recovers its brood: two black fledglings, one white. This is natural science out of Herodotus, and its inversion of modern nature writing is one of the most uncanny and frightening things in the novel.
La mort i la primavera is a hard book to read. Its moral appeal, however, is no different from that made by the writer in her twenties who began her a novel about a young woman with the death of a cat. What Rodoreda asks of her readers is a minute attention to suffering; what she offers in exchange is a minutely worked beauty. Not every reader will want to make the bargain, and it may always set limits on her popularity. She enlists in no cause, and offers no remedy for pain but that which comes in the bare act of attention. Nonetheless she is a great modernist author, precisely in the tradition of Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett. Like them she offers a vision of life that might be characterized as nihilistic, and like them, she threads that vision together with an idiosyncratic formal beauty and the moral force of refusing all false consolation. I will show you life, is the message of books such as these. Here are its conditions. You may have it under no others. Do not look away.
Paul Kerschen’s most recent work of fiction, The Drowned Library, was published in November by Foxhead Books.
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