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.