The Time of the Doves (1962) is deeply moving. The basic story is familiar. An impending conflict looms large. An ordinary shop assistant, Natalia, meets and falls in love with a man, Quimet. He is controlling and somewhat abusive, she fails to notice this and, of course marries him. War, Spanish Civil War, breaks out. Natalia’s world is devastated but she survives. This book is not your average love-during-wartime story. The Time of the Doves is a beautiful surprise because its author, the Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda, has created a rather unlikely stream-of-consciousness voice to narrate the story. The book opens with Natalia on her way to a dance.
It was hard for me to say no if someone asked me to do something. I was dressed all in white, my dress and petticoats starched, my shoes like two drops of milk, my earrings white enamel, three hoop bracelets that matched the earrings, a white purse Julieta said was made of vinyl with a snap shaped like a gold shellfish.
Natalia is simple, naive and timid. She seems out of place and time against the background of antebellum Barcelona. And in the opening pages of the story, one would be forgiven for wanting a more profound voice, a self-aware character to take her place. Yet as the story unfolds, the reader is drawn into Natalia’s view of her world, her terse and lyrical retelling of the events that shape her life. She is not prone to smart self-analysis, is not one for grand gestures and big statements. Of her ability to survive devastating events, she says
Sometime I’d heard people say, “That person’s like a cork,” but I never understood what they meant. To me a cork was like a stopper. If I couldn’t get it back in the bottle after I’d opened it I’d trim it down with a knife…I was like a cork myself. Not because I was born that way but because I had to be. And to make my heart like stone. I had to be like a cork to keep going because if instead of being a cork with a heart of stone I’d been like before, made of flesh that hurts when you pinch it, I’d never have gotten across such a high, narrow, long bridge.
Natalia’s world, places and social circle, is very small. There is the apartment she shares with her family, a couple of grocery shops, her workplace, her husband and their few friends. Rodoreda is successfull at keeping Natalia’s mind firmly focused on this world, and in keeping with her character, Natalia rarely refers to or speaks directly of the war. As the conflict rages on, she does battle with her husband’s doves. She is not political, does not take sides, aware as she is that perhaps the political outcome of the war will not greatly affect her ordinary life.
This is not a heroic war story. Natalia, when her world reverberates with the ugliness of war, just tries her best to deal with the blows without any hints of gallantry or immense bravery. This is a tender, soulful, and at times gut wrenchingly sad story about ordinary, desperate lives lived away from the frontlines of war.
The Time of the Doves is simply stunning. Rodoreda’s prose is quirky and poetic. Her creation of Natalia’s voice is the work of a genius. Her control of that voice and its world-view, especially during overwhelmingly sad moments and private horrors, is masterful. There is a surreal, hypnotizing feel to the book that leaves one mesmerized.
Mercè Rodoreda (1908 – 1983) is considered the best Catalan writer. The book is regarded as the best at depicting life during the Spanish Civil War. It is also read as a symbol of resistance against General Franco’s repressive regime. Rodoreda wrote the book during a period when the survival of the Catalan language was in doubt. The Catalan title of the book, La plaça del diamant (translate as Diamond Square), refers to an actual plaza in Barcelona. The late poet David Rosenthal translated the book in 1981.
I highly recommend this book. I am enormously grateful to have been introduced to The Time of the Doves, a gem of 20th Century literature, and to its author. Mercè Rodoreda should be better known and more widely read by English readers.
Have you read any books by Mercè Rodoreda or by other Catalan writers?