© ARXIU MERCÈ RODOREDA DE L’INSTITUT D’ESTUDIS CATALANS
I can’t remember the first time I read Mercè Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves. It might have been when I was 13, living with my family in the high-rise suburbs of Madrid. It might have been when I was 17, back in Madrid with my mother for a few weeks in a sweltering rented room. Or it might have been when I was 19, on my own in the city, sharing an apartment near the train station with four South American girls. In any case, I read it in Spanish, under the title La plaza del diamante (the original Catalan title is La plaça del diamant). And I read it at about the same time as I read Nada, by Carmen Laforet. These were the first serious books I read in Spanish, and I’ve never forgotten them.
Certainly, few books have been as gorgeously sad. On a personal list of misery-inducing favorites including Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, The Time of the Doves ranks near the top. Set in Barcelona around the time of the Spanish Civil War, it’s tragic simply as a function of its setting, but Rodoreda plumbs a sadness that reaches beyond historic circumstances, a sadness born of helplessness, an almost voluptuous vulnerability. This condition will be familiar to readers of Rhys’s novels, to which Rodoreda’s novels bear a certain resemblance. Rodoreda’s women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty.
This, of course, is what made them so appealing to my moody adolescent self. In the midst of great upheaval, Rodoreda’s characters–and Laforet’s–lead cloistered, almost solipsistic lives, oblivious of politics and warmaking. Natalia, of The Time of the Doves, is an unworldly girl swept off her feet by Quimet, a charmer with a cruel streak who joins the Republican army and leaves her with two small children and a roof full of doves. Andrea, of Nada, comes to Barcelona just after the war to study at the university and moves into a crumbling Gothic apartment that houses three generations of her troubled family. Both women are immersed in the squalid details of domestic life, as famished for a glimpse of beauty as they are for a decent meal. With their senses sharpened by hunger, they’re almost overwhelmed by the intensity of daily existence.
Though I didn’t realize it back then, The Time of the Doves and Nada are part of a small canon of coming-of-age novels by Catalan women published in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. This was a remarkable flowering of talent and a bounty yet to be fully appreciated by English-language readers. If anyone has heard of Rodoreda, it’s probably because of the award-winning 1982 film adaptation of The Time of the Doves, by the Catalan director Francesc Betriu, though even that has mostly faded from memory by now. The Time of the Doves and a collection, My Christina and Other Stories, are still in print, both in translations by David Rosenthal published by Graywolf Press in the 1980s, but Rosenthal’s translation of Rodoreda’s novel Camellia Street is out of print. Laforet has fared better, with an excellent new translation of Nada by Edith Grossman, recently issued by the Modern Library. This brought Laforet some well-deserved attention, but the sense persists that she is part of a generation lost to American readers.