Mercè Rodoreda is a new writer for me and this was a completely new type of read. Born in Barcelona in 1908, Rodoreda wrote a number of novels and short stories in Catalan in the early 1930’s. In 1935 she began working for the Catalan Ministry of Information, but was forced into exile on Franco’s victory, first in France and then Switzerland. She returned to Catalonia in the 60’s, Death in Spring was published posthumously in 1986, which adds to its sense of mystery and otherness.
I say all this because knowing a bit about her background seemed to matter very much when trying to understand this strange book. Narrated by a nameless 14 year old boy, the drama is set in a nameless village, a village ‘born from the earth’s terrible unrest’, in no set period in history. But while it feels realistic, in that we recognise her world, Rodoreda’s gentle language lulls us into the brutal customs which are followed without question.
The village is set in the mountains, built over a river and supported by rocks. The houses are painted a rosy pink and covered with wisteria, the paint for the houses is collected by the men from the mountain in the middle of the night and the wisteria trunks are pulling the houses down into the river. They are afraid that their village will be washed away, so every year a man swims under the village to make sure the rocks holding it up are stable. Sometimes they are killed, sometimes mutilated, they are the ‘faceless men’ and are kept apart.
No one has a name, the narrator takes us through his life in the village, his family, ‘the blacksmith’, ‘the pregnant women’, ‘the prisoner’ and other neighbours and the day to day happenings. There’s no kindness just unquestioned cruelty, even the beauty of the surrounding nature has been given human qualities so there’s a constant feeling of oppression and eeriness
‘I stopped at the entrance to the forest, at the divide between sun and shadow. I had seen the cloud of butterflies earlier. The trees in the forest were very tall, full of leaves – five-point-leaves – and, just as the blacksmith had often told me, a plaque and a ring were attached to the foot of each tree. There were thousands of butterflies, all white. They fluttered about anxiously; many of them looked like half-opened flowers, the white slightly streaked with green. The leaves stirred and a splash of sun jumped from one to another, in between you could see speckles of blue. . . . I lay down under a tree and watched the cloud of butterflies bubble among the leaves. I looked at them through the web of leaf veins until I was tired, and as soon as I let it fall, I heard footsteps.
I jumped up and hid behind a shrub. The steps came closer. The shrub had a yellow, half-unsheathed flower and five leaves that gave off a prismatic sheen. The bee was sheltering there, dusting off its legs. I was sure it was the bee that had crossed the river and followed me from the village.’
The forest is at the centre of the barbaric customs, it’s purpose introduced gradually, slowly and deliberately; so that although the narrator is 14, it feels as if we’re being led by a much older and wiser person. And perhaps if there is a glimmer of sunshine it’s in the forest where he has his few moments of independence. There’s no judgement on the village life, there aren’t any reasons given or the cause for why they behave and believe as they do, we’re just witnesses.
This is a difficult book to describe, the cover blurb says that it can be seen “as an allegory for life under a dictatorship’, and while I understand that, it doesn’t feel like it’s the whole story. There were elements that were so shocking I was reading with my eyes on storks (the treatment of the prisoner was heartbreaking) and yet it was utterly compelling!