Death in Spring – Mercè Rodoreda

There are frequent reverent pauses whenever my mother and I happen to discuss the genius of Mercè Rodoreda.  It’s hard for us to fathom why we had not heard of this Catalan author prior to late 2009, when a translator sent my mother a copy of  The Time of the Doves.  The relative neglect of her works (outside Spain) compared to her Spanish counterparts is inexplicable.  Is it due to her gender, the language (Catalan) in which she wrote or the tumultuous upheavals and repressive regimes that her people had to endure?  Or is it due to the ridiculously low number of publications of translated fiction in the English-speaking world?  Whatever the reason, it is a crying shame that Mercè Rodoreda, who is considered the greatest Catalan writer, is not widely known and read in the English-speaking world.

I loved Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves, a masterpiece about the effects of war on the lives of ordinary people.  Death in Spring (1986), her final novel, is nothing like The Time of the Doves.  And yet, it felt unmistakably like a Rodoreda novel.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in an essay, said Rodoreda “had bedazzled (him) by the sensuality with which she reveals things within the atmosphere of her novels, long after she had astounded (him) with the new light she sheds with her words”.  His use of the word atmosphere is quite apt.  Death in Spring is lusciously creepy, highly challenging, disturbing and strange.  It echoes Juan Rulfo’s Spanish masterpiece Pedro Paramo, another beautifully written yet haunting and scary novel.

Death in Spring is narrated by a fourteen year old boy who struggles to make sense of the brutal rituals and customs of his people in the small and isolated village of Maraldina. This is not your average coming- of-age tale. Here are some examples of rituals in this oppressive village:  Those who are dying and are virtually on their last breaths are stuffed with cement to prevent their souls from escaping and then entombed in trees; Children are locked in cupboards during fiestas; Pregnant women walk around blindfolded so that their newborns do not resemble other men; Young men are forced to swim in a powerful river that runs under the village.  They will emerge ravaged and disfigured.  That is, if they survive the swim.

In this society, people adhere blindly to age-old traditions. The inhabitants, including young children, eschew emotional outbursts and displays of affection. There is also an illusion to order in the village.  All the bridges, waterfalls, forest and paths are clearly named.  There are meticulous and much-repeated directions for every location. Ultimately though, this order will not save the village from destruction.

The novel is awash in descriptive and fantastic imagery.  Wisteria climbs houses, soap bubbles turn to glass, houses are painted pink, spring is green, green is poison, butterflies, bees, and birds.  All these images are cleverly woven together, not to portray life, but to depict a society that is dying a slow death from the inside out.  It is a credit to Rodoreda that the rendering of this decayed greenness never feels false.  Instead and rather paradoxically, everything in Maraldina feels natural.

At the center of all this is her narrator. It is his manner of recounting what happens to the village that lulls the reader into accepting what comes to pass in the town.  He marries, has a child and participates in his community’s bloody rituals.   He never overtly questions authority, intent as he is on living his little life, even as he struggles to cope with the myriad of tragedies that befall him.  He is inevitably thrust into the center of tumultuous events.  And as the story nears its final chapters, one starts to wonder if he will succumb to or triumph over the savagery that awaits him in the novel’s final chapters.

Is Death in Spring an allegory? Is it a representation of life under Franco’s Spain?  Does it advocate against adherence to strong religious dogma?  How exactly is one to interpret this novel?  Frankly, I don’t know the answer. The symbolism, metaphors, imagery and narration are deliberately confusing. If I reached a certain understanding of the book at any point, Rodoreda would reveal a twist that would obliterate that understanding.  Death in Spring defies expectation and logic. I’m sure to reread this elegant and poetic book in order to better understand it.  For now though, it’s clear to me that Rodoreda thinks that small, individual acts of resistance mean a whole lot.

(A heartfelt thanks to Open Letter for the publication of this novel.  The cover illustration, a tree made out of bones, is frightfully wonderful and representative of this unsettling text.  And thanks to Martha Tennent for an amazing translation that allows us, English readers, full access to Rodoreda’s complex, bloody, hostile and perplexing world.)

I removed my clothes and dropped them at the foot of the hackberry tree, beside the madman’s rock.  Before entering the river, I stopped to observe the color left behind in the sky.  The sun-dappled light was different now that spring had arrived, reborn after living beneath the earth and within branches.  I lowered myself gently into the water, hardly daring to breathe, always with the fear that, as I entered the water world, the air — finally rid of my nuisance — would begin to rage and be transformed into a furious wind, like the winter wind that nearly carried away houses, trees, and people.  I had sought the broadest part of the river, a place farthest from the village, a place where no one ever came.  I didn’t want to be seen.

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19 comments

  1. This one is going to have to be a reread for me. I liked it, but the heavy symbolism sort of drove me nuts. I couldn’t figure out what was important and what was just a cigar (to paraphrase Freud). Maybe reading it without the pressure of having to write a timely review will be better. I recognized her incredible writing and feel that I’ve kind of done Death in Spring a disservice by not appreciating it more.

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    • I also plan on rereading it soon. I think that I dealt a bit better with the heavy symbolism because I’d read Pedro Paramo, which terrified me when I first read it. Definitely, the pressure to review will interfere with the reading of this book. I dedicated quite soon peaceful time it. It’s not the sort of book to read while hurried or occupied with other earthbound thoughts. Looking forward to a second review 🙂 when you reread it.

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  2. Lone, thanks for the description and quote on Nada . I’m intrigued by the quote and I will definitely read the book. Rodoreda is clear but deceptively so. Her main characters, at first glance, are such simple folk. But this simpleness hides a deep perception and a n understanding that she uncovers slowly within the novels. And regardless of the “atmosphere”, it is the characters that keep the story going and they who keeps us glued to her stories.

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  3. I thought Death in Spring was pretty odd and came away feeling that I hadn’t understood much of what Rodoreda was saying, but still enjoyed it.

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  4. Thank you for this reveiw!
    I enjoyed “The Time of the Doves” very much and have “Nada” by Carmen Laforet on my desk. 🙂

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      • Kinna,
        I have just started the novel and can reveal a little, then you can decide if it sounds like a book you would enjoy.

        Then opening scene is very gothic;

        You hear how Andrea arrives at midnight in Barcelona, takes a horse carriage to her relatives appartment, meet this old grandmother who never sleeps and a group of witches standing around her like mourners. The appartment is dark with heavy dark furniture, candaliers, cobwebs, no air and a bed which looks like a coffin for her to sleep in.

        But several times I have found the prose somewhat abrupt and clumsy and it has forced me to re-read sentenses. But then there are moment like this;

        “The small window opened to the dark night sky. The light of the lamp made Román taller and more immobile, breathing only in his music. And it came to me in waves: first, innocent memories, dreams, struggles, my own vacillating present, and then, sharp joys, sorrows, despair, a significant contraction of life, a negation into nothing. My own death, the feeling of my total despair turned into beauty, an anguished harmony without light. ”

        Her voice is very different from Rodoreda’s and the story is packed with atmosphere. I loved Rodoreda’s simple and yet intense style in The Time of the Doves, Laforet is more sensual and full of images. I like that you sense the people, you sense their troubles and sorrow but I miss the clear voice of Rodoreda’s.

        This is my first impression and if I should try to compaire the two writers. Both are great, no doubt about it. Its a matter of taste and style.

        I look forward to hearing what you make of the novel when you get around to reading it.

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  5. Excelent review. I found the book as strange, fascinating, and beautiful as you did. It was one of my favs of 2009. I think you’ll enjoy the stories when ever you can get a copy. Have you read The Time Of The Doves? I must do it one day.

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    • Yes, I’ve read The Time of the Doves and reviewed it on this blog. It’s the book that turned me onto Rodoreda. I loved it completely! Death in Spring is simply amazing, especially in the way that it confounds easy interpretation.

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  6. Sounds so intriguing. You are right, though, it’s not a book that is easy to find! I am also rather disappointed by how hard it is to find world literature or books in translation in general. I must admit I’d never heard of ANY Catalan literature. Off to see your lists…

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  7. Her books really do sound fantastic and I’m indebted to you for mentioning her again and again to remind me to pick up her works! This sounds awful creepy but also so interesting.

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