A Domestic Existentialist: On Mercè Rodoreda
© 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.
It was a generation lost to itself, too. When the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, many of Spain's writers (and publishers and critics) fled into exile or were intimidated into silence. Most had supported the short-lived Republic, and their prospects were dismal under the new fascist regime. Literary organizations were shut down or co-opted, fiction was expected to cleave to the fascist cause and even the greats of Spanish literature were tossed on the trash heap of history. In 1942 one young journalist wrote that Spaniards should no longer look to Don Quixote as a model, because he represented decadence and defeat; better to look to Hernán Cortés, conquistador and man of action.
Barcelona, of course, was the capital of Republican Spain, and the situation of Catalan writers was particularly bleak. Catalan language and culture had been undergoing a revival since the nineteenth century, but when Franco came to power, regional languages were banned. A generation of children grew up in schools where Castilian was the only language taught, and writers who wrote in Catalan (a language most closely related to the French dialect of Provençal) were marooned in the past, their future uncertain.
Mercè Rodoreda, born in 1908, never considered writing in any language but Catalan. Her grandfather was a writer for La Renaixença, the journal of the Catalanist movement, and her father loved to read aloud from the works of the Catalan poets, especially Jacint Verdaguer. Despite the family's literary inclinations, Rodoreda was sent to school for only three years, until she was 10, because it was assumed that she would marry. Her mother's brother, a successful businessman recently returned from Argentina, was a suitor close at hand, and when she was 20 they were wed. They had a son, but Rodoreda, eager for independence, began to write and sought entry into literary circles.
After self-publishing a novel and writing short stories for various newspapers, Rodoreda managed to establish herself as a regular contributor of political articles to the Catalanist journal Clarisme. A few more novels were published (which she would later repudiate), and she began to get to know other writers and journalists, notably Andreu Nin, a translator of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, who would become her lover. Then came the war, in 1936. Rodoreda never said much about her life in Barcelona during the war years, but The Time of the Doves stands as testament to the hardships endured by those living in the city in the late '30s. Nin was killed in 1937, and Rodoreda separated from her husband. In 1938, remarkably, she had her first real literary success, with the autobiographical novel Aloma.
When Barcelona fell in early 1939, Rodoreda went into exile, but she expected to return soon. She and a group of fellow writers left the city in a bus belonging to the Institució de les Lletres Catalanes, as if on some grim field trip. They took up residence in a castle designated for refugees in the town of Roissy, near Paris. There, Rodoreda began an affair with the married writer Joan Prat, who went by the pseudonym Armand Obiols. Their romance caused the group of writers to break up, and when war came to France, Rodoreda and Obiols fled to Limoges and later Bordeaux, where Rodoreda supported herself by sewing. After the war, they moved to Paris, and in 1954 they settled in Geneva, where Obiols worked as a translator for UNESCO.
The fate of refugees from Franco's Spain was cruel. War followed upon war with just a few months of respite, and those who had barely survived the destruction of their country were ill equipped to piece together an existence in war-torn France. During World War II, as during the civil war, Rodoreda often went hungry. Few writers have written as starkly and convincingly about hunger as she does in The Time of the Doves. One night, lying in bed with her two starving children, Natalia decides to kill them rather than watch them slowly die. Not only is there no food, but she's lost the strength to go looking for it. "What's a crust of bread when you're starving?" she asks. "Even to eat grass you've got to have the strength to go out searching for it."
In the early 1950s, at perhaps the low point of her career, Rodoreda mysteriously lost the use of her right arm and was unable to write much but poetry. She took up painting instead, until a collection of her stories won a prize and she was encouraged enough to write what would be her masterpiece, The Time of the Doves. It was published in Catalan in 1962 and translated into Spanish in 1965. Like Nada (published in 1942), it was a popular and critical success. Around the same time, she wrote La mort i la primavera, a very different book, which didn't find a publisher until 1986 and has only just now been translated into English, as Death in Spring, by Martha Tennent.
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.