It’s Week 2 of Women in Translation Month, and after last week’s stops in Japan and Germany, today’s visit takes us to Catalonia. I reviewed Mercè Rodoreda’s War, So Much War for Necessary Fiction back in May, and I was so impressed I thought I’d try another of her books this month. It’s another excellent novel, similar in style, but where War, So Much War was a wanderer’s tale, this one stays very close to its roots 🙂
Death in Spring (translated by Martha Tennent, electronic review copy courtesy of Open Letter Books) opens with a boy creeping around slowly down by a river, eventually arriving in what he calls ‘the forest of the dead’. The name alone is pretty disturbing, but then, from our vantage point hidden beside the boy, we see a man arrive, chop a hole in the tree – and seal himself inside:
I threw myself on the ground, on top of the pebbles, my heart drained of blood, my hands icy. I was fourteen years old, and the man who had entered the tree to die was my father.
p.15 (Open Letter, 2015)
If only that was all. You see the father has gone to such desperate measures because he knows that the fate that has been set aside for him is even more terrifying than burying himself alive…
As we move back to the small village where the novel is to unfold, we follow the next stages in the boy’s life, with particular attention paid to the gradual development of his relationship with his teenage step-mother. While that may not seem such a major drama, their growing closeness is to lead to the boy’s social ostracisation. This is a place where even the smallest deviation from social norms is frowned upon, and anyone who seeks to challenge the status quo is inviting trouble into their home.
Death in Spring is a shortish, gripping novel, and like War, So Much War, a fairytale air hovers over the story. However, this is no Disneyfied story for kids but rather one of those original versions your parents never let you read when you were little. With the writer avoiding names, for both the characters and the village, or any identifying markers, the story could be set anywhere, and it all comes across as a timeless tale of the dangers of isolation (and a pretty disturbing one at that).
The way Death in Spring sketches out the customs of the village has a lot in common with Victorian-era English novels (Thomas Hardy comes to mind here). Every spring, the men climb to the caves to collect dust, used to make the pink paint needed to freshen up the houses of the village, and once this is done, it’s time to celebrate:
I wanted to see the festa, so I went. The villagers had gathered near the river, on the esplanade by the canes that whistled because it was windy. Tables and benches had been built from tree trunks. The horse hoof soup was already boiling in large cauldrons, and standing beside each pot was a woman who was removing scum with a ladle and throwing fat and lumps of cooked blood on the ground. (p.23)
I can’t say that this is my kind of food, but so far it’s still a typical literary portrait of a rural community of times gone by.
The more we learn, though, the more twisted the picture becomes, as many of the customs here appear bizarre, or even barbaric. The village’s pregnant women are permanently blindfolded when in public lest they fall in love with other men; with the village standing atop a river, one man each year is thrown into the torrents upstream, emerging on the other side either dead or with their face and nerves in tatters. Of course, the worst tradition of all concerns a person’s last breath and the lengths people will go to to prevent the soul from escaping. It’s little wonder that the boy’s father ran away…
The novel is in four parts, each divided into short chapters and telling one part of the boy’s life. As he becomes a man, he begins to question the beliefs of the village, coming up against the local blacksmith, the enforcer in chief of the old ways, in the process. Later in the novel, there is a slight cultural shift, and we meet other characters who exist outside the community, such as a prisoner caged like an animal and the blacksmith’s feeble son. The man attempts to go his own way, but standing out too much, he becomes a target for all the village’s loathing, unlikely to escape harm for long.
Part of the effect of Rodoreda’s failure to identify the location or characters is to lend Death in Spring an allegorical air, building it into a general commentary on how repressive societies strike down dissenters. The most important villagers have played on the emotions of the common people so well that even the Señor, a rich man in a big house on the mountain, knows that he must follow the unwritten rules. The village is trapped in the past, stifled by fear:
The watchmen are on guard, but what they guard against is nowhere to be seen. They continue to mutilate men because they say two shadows once joined together. It’s fear. They want to be afraid. They want to believe, and they want to suffer, suffer, only suffer, and they choke the dying to make them suffer even more, so they’ll suffer till their last breath, so that no good moment can ever exist. (p.82)
The breathtakingly stupid fear of the unknown is galling, yet at the same time oddly familiar. In an era of Brexit and a possible Trump presidency, it’s hard to feel too smug about our modern ways…
The boy, growing up in this closed world, is fully aware that there’s no way out; the saddest thing is that even your death is taken out of your hands. While Rodoreda and Tennent have combined to create a beautiful text, the context is enough to make you shudder at times. Nevertheless, Death in Spring is definitely a book I’d recommend, and Rodoreda is the kind of writer Women in Translation Month is all about.
#WITMonth Bonus Shot – Number 3
Welcome to the third of my #WITMonth Bonus Shot features, in which I suggest some further reading ideas connected to the post (and country) of the day – links, where applicable, are to my reviews 🙂
I haven’t read much by female Catalan writers, but I’ve enjoyed what little I have tried. Open Letter have published three books by Rodoreda (the two I’ve read plus The Selected Stories), and there’s more out there, including perhaps her most famous work, In Diamond Square. Peirene Press have also published a book in Catalan, and Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide seems to be one of the most popular books in their stable. Finally, there’s Imma Monsó’s A Man of His Word, one of the few female-written offerings in the Hispabooks catalogue, and a book I enjoyed immensely 🙂
That’s not enough, really, so I had a quick look online, and the following article I found via The Culture Trip presents ten ‘must-read’ Catalan writers, five of whom are women (including Rodoreda, of course!). Hopefully, that will help you find another Catalan book to enjoy 🙂