A Domestic Existentialist: On Mercè Rodoreda
For those who've only read The Time of the Doves, Death in Spring will come as a surprise. In it, Rodoreda works in an entirely different register, heavily symbolic and fable-like. Signs of this tendency are visible in a number of her short stories, some of which are collected in My Christina and Other Stories. In this collection, Rodoreda's full range of expression is on display, from the almost banal realism of a later novel, A Broken Mirror, through the exquisite impressionism of The Time of the Doves and Camellia Street, to the garish symbolism of Death in Spring. In Rodoreda's more symbolic fictions, nature comes to the fore and humans mimic animals or morph into them, as in the short story "The Salamander," in which a woman who sleeps with a married man is burned to death and turns into a salamander, returning to live under her lover's bed.
The use of symbolism is a form of sublimation, in the same way that the ruthless elision and economy of Rodoreda's writing in The Time of the Doves is a form of sublimation. In both cases, Rodoreda heightens and transforms the brutal reality of existence in a world of endless war. The artfulness of the latter method, however, stands in contrast to the often garbled mythmaking of some of the short stories and Death in Spring. Like "The Salamander," Death in Spring is set in a village that's part medieval, part contemporary and part infernal. A river runs beneath it, through a rocky passage, and every year one man must swim it to make sure the village isn't about to be washed away. Most emerge near death, their faces torn by the rocks, but even this is benign compared with the village's rituals of death, in which living villagers are stuffed full of pink cement and entombed upright in trees.
These savage customs are related by a young man who watches his father try in vain to escape the death ritual, and then marries his 16-year-old stepmother, a dwarflike girl who gnaws on balls of horse fat. They have a daughter, who's born deformed and who transfers her affections from her father to the nihilistic son of the village blacksmith. From this point on, the protagonist's fortunes (such as they are) decline, and he loses everything he loves before finding himself chosen to swim under the village. In outline (and in full), this reads like a nightmare, but it lacks the inexorable logic of dreams. Without this logic, the novel disintegrates into disjointed scenes, sometimes terrifying and sometimes simply risible.
The Time of the Doves is to Death in Spring what a Vermeer is to a clumsy expressionist painting. Natalia's voice is a creation of genius: naïve, stubborn, unself-consciously lyrical. Upon her first appearance, she says: "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, and a white purse Julieta said was made of vinyl with a snap shaped like a gold shellfish." Unlike Rodoreda, she is unsophisticated, a clerk in a pastry shop until she marries a man named Quimet. Her world is her apartment, her block, the nearby plazas, the little stand where her friend Senyora Enriqueta sells chestnuts and peanuts. When the war comes, she refers to it only obliquely. Quimet is involved in mysterious activities, and there's no more cooking gas. All the passion that might have been roused by the war is expressed in her battle with the milling pigeons that Quimet raises on the roof.
Rodoreda's novel is distinctly and defiantly antiheroic. There's nothing gallant or stirring about the war as she sees it. In fact, the war is barely visible except in its effect on those behind the lines. When Quimet is killed and Natalia is left alone with her starving children, she struggles for a long time ("that night for supper the three of us shared a sardine and a rotten tomato") but finally creeps to the grocer's to beg for hydrochloric acid, which she plans to funnel into her children's mouths while they're asleep. Even her rescue at the last minute is by a markedly unheroic character, the grocer who spots the desperation in her eyes and offers her a job--and, ultimately, marriage.
If there's heroism in the novel, it's all Rodoreda's. This was a heroic novel to write at a time when Spain clamored for a Cortés, not a Don Quixote. It was a heroic novel to write in Catalan, when it was unclear whether the language would survive the next few decades. It was a heroic novel--a feat of the imagination--to write from the antiseptic safe haven of Geneva. Rodoreda seems to have indulged fatalism in her fiction in a way that she wouldn't allow herself in life, most notably in the bleak novel Camellia Street, about an orphan, Cecília, who becomes a prostitute and then a kept woman, the willing agent of her own degradation. The novel bears a striking resemblance to Jean Rhys's Voyage in the Dark, with its furnished rooms, miscarriages and abortions. A long sequence in which Cecília is virtually kept prisoner, drugged and spied upon by a couple of ostensible protectors, is one of the most perfectly pitched and devastating descriptions of victimhood ever written.
It's curious that Rodoreda is so esteemed by feminists (she's the frequent subject of academic papers), when her novels revolve around the abdication of control by women and their subsequent humiliation. And yet there's something steely and thoroughly modern about the way Rodoreda acknowledges the unsentimental deal-making that masquerades as love. In the novel Aloma, Aloma's brother explains his marriage to his sister: "Let's not fool ourselves: I was never in love with Anna. She was just the kind of woman I could bring home." When Natalia marries the grocer, who is unfailingly kind but nothing like Quimet, she falls into a black mood. "Nothing pleased me: not the shop, or the hallway like a dark intestine." She did love Quimet, but she was afraid of him, too, and though she knows he's dead, the fear that he'll come back and catch her with the grocer haunts her for years.
Love, often withheld from human beings, is lavished on places and things, on flowers and shades of light and coffee pots. Rodoreda has a particular fondness for household objects, much-handled and familiar: the grocer's bedspread is "all crocheted with roses on top and a fringe of crocheted curls you could wash and iron and either they wouldn't come uncurled at all or they'd immediately curl up again like they had a mind of their own." On the grocer's bureau, between two bell jars full of flowers, there's a seashell. "That shell with all the sea's moaning inside it was more to me than a person. No person could live with all those waves coming and going inside them. And whenever I dusted it I'd always pick it up and listen to it for a minute." Rodoreda is a domestic existentialist, a brilliant composer of interiors, both physical and mental. Only The Time of the Doves and, to a lesser degree, Camellia Street are fully realized expressions of her skill, but those two books--like Natalia's children, as she realizes at a moment when she is suddenly able to see them objectively--are two flowers.
When a book in translation doesn't catch on the first time around, it seldom gets a second reading. And yet at a cultural moment when the recycling of past greats has become commonplace (John Travolta, say, or the rescued classics issued by New York Review Books), the smaller masterpieces of the past are more accessible. Recognition fifty years late is different from recognition in the historic moment. The names Rodoreda and Laforet may never occupy a place in the American consciousness like that of García Márquez or even Vargas Llosa (all four authors were first published in the United States at more or less the same time, in the mid-1960s to early '70s; incidentally, García Márquez was one of Rodoreda's early champions, and Vargas Llosa wrote the introduction to the Modern Library edition of Nada).
But there is room for a resurgence, even a resurrection. Rodoreda lived until 1983, beloved by readers around the world and a role model for writers in Spain and Catalonia, where she finally returned. Since The Time of the Doves, many thousands of books have been written about the experience of the Spanish Civil War, but none has equaled it. Rodoreda's novel deserves a place in literature as the homefront equivalent of All Quiet on the Western Front, and perhaps someday it will be granted it.