Rodoreda’s last novel: A haunting portrayal of a disordered world
We read certain novelists, like Dostoevsky and especially Dickens, relatively quickly, anticipating something astonishing around the corner. There are others, like Mercè Rodoreda, that one reads slowly, anticipating something astonishing in every paragraph.
Rodoreda is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the Catalan language. Her modernist novel La Plaça del Diamant (“Diamond Square” after a place in Barcelona), first published in English as The Time of the Doves (New York: Taplinger, ©1981), a woman’s growing understanding of love and life over two decades, has been acclaimed as the best fictional treatment of the Spanish Civil War in any language. All of her mature works, both novels and stories, are characterized by simple yet meticulously concise expression, making her one of the greatest stylists of any language.
It is therefore a major event that Open Letter, the press of the University of Rochester dedicated to new translations of literary works, publishes this month War, So Much War, a translation by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennant of Rodoreda’s Quanta, quanta guerra… the last novel published during Rodoreda’s lifetime (Barcelona: Club Editor, 1980). (Open Book first published in 2009 Death in Spring, a translation of the posthumously published and unfinished La mort i la primavera (Barcelona: Fundació Mercè Rodoreda: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 1997). In September, Open Letter came out with a paperback edition.) As for the newly translated novel, unlike many major events, this one does not disappoint expectations.
Her Life, in Brief
Merc¡e Rodoreda i Gurguí was born in the Sarrià-Sant Gervasi section of Barcelona (where the Diamond Plaza was located) at a time (October 1908) when modernity and tradition were vying for supremacy. This conflict took place in the fields of culture and politics. In culture Modernisme was temporarily defeated by Noucentisme but the dialectics of these opposites produced a synthesis which led to a modern Catalan nationalism. In politics, Barcelona (the largest center of industry in Spain) found both its bourgeois and working class interests unrepresented in parliament, where both the Conservatives and Liberals were captives of the land-holding classes. Not willing to admit other groups the two parliamentary parties managed elections and agreed to a rotation in office (el turno) and left it to the Army to manage dissent without interference by the civil authorities. In Barcelona anti-militarism, on the rise among the workers and the intelligentsia, especially after the loss of the empire in the war with the United States in 1898, was met with open hostility on the part of the local barracks. The climax came a year after Rodoreda was born with the demonstrations against the Army’s call up for the Moroccan. The Army responded during the Tragic Week, la Setmana Tràgica in 1909, with an iron fist, and the civilian government supported the unauthorized repression by executing five protestors and sentencing 59 others to life for their opposition and supposedly participating in the violence that followed. This event proved the turning point for Catalonia, and the working class would now organize for serious confrontations, a pose that would last for nearly three decades until Franco’s forces permanently subdued the region and executed, imprisoned or expelled everyone associated with Catalan nationalism, socialism, anarchism and democracy.
According to Rodoreda’s elliptical memoirs, she was an unlikely participant (as activist or memorialist) in these struggles, growing impoverished and only receiving two years of formal education. But a recent examination of her childhood shows that it was less impoverished and disadvantaged than she suggested. In El paradís perdut de Mercè Rodoreda (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 2015) (available since last month on Amazon, but only for Kindle and only in Catalan) Carme Arnau Faidella reconstructed Rodoreda’s childhood from unpublished letters and other memorabilia. She concludes that Mercè had a happy, somewhat Bohemian life. Her parents were devoted to the theater (both had taken classes at l’ Escola d’Art Dramàtic) and books. Her mother was fond of music as well. But she was especially fond of her maternal grandfather, Pere Gurguí, in whose house they lived. Gurguí was a journalist who had once been editor for the short-lived L’Arc de Sant Martí (“Rainbow”) and La Renaixença (“the Renaissance”), both conservative Catalan newspapers, which promoted the cultural identity of Catalans. Gurguí was dedicated to Catalonian history and culture and imparted his love to his granddaughter. He had been a friend of Jacint Verdaguer, poet and member of the generation of Restoration of 1874, which led to La Renaixença, the rebirth of Catalan language and culture. Mercè remembered her grandfather telling her that a guardian angel watched over her, and occasionally those angels appear in her writing. He also read to her the works of Català, Ruyra and other Catalan modernists. The most important to him was Verdaguer. In 1910, eight years after the poet’s death and two years after Mercè’s birth, Gurguí built a monument to Verdaguer in his garden,
“a hill of big stones, with pans of dirt in between, where rosemary plants and other typical Mediterranean plants grew, surrounded by a strip of pink cement that wound around the rocks and had the titles of Verdaguer’s main works engraved in it, El Canigó, L’Atlàntida, etc.” (from Images of Childhood.)
The garden and its flowers became a recurring figure in her writing especially after her exile. Almost as if flowers represented the Catalan culture they were associated with in the garden, flowers would spring up everywhere in her stories and novels. They could be symbols of love as in “Blood”: “My husband would say the dahlias were our children.” Disinterest in flowers could signal a breach in a relationship as in “Engaged”: “‘ I don’t understand your obsession with flowers. All that …’ he made a gesture with his head as if shaking off something that suddenly vexed him.” Flowers are sometimes provide subtle symbolism, as the bougainvillea in Isabel i Maria, a plant whose bracts imitate flower petals and in the story reflects the duplicity between the characters. But mostly flowers represented home, especially in exile. As Rodoreda herself said (in the preface to Mirall trencat (Broken Mirror) Rodoreda explained why she made a gardener and his garden the center of her novel Jardí vora el mar (Garden by the Sea), the first novel after her exile: “Linked to flowers, without flowers for years, I felt the need to talk about flowers, and to make my main character a gardener.” Flowers therefore represented above all homesickness, which is probably why an idolized and innocent childhood is part of almost all her works. Arnau said that the nostalgia for a lost childhood is always contrasted with adult hypocrisy and corruption.
Her own childhood paradise came abrupt to an end when she was 20. After her grandfather’s death, evidently her uncle, her mother’s brother, who had been in the Americas to make his fortune, sent stipends to her family to keep it afloat. When he returned, he married Mercè. A year later she had a son. Her marriage and domestic life made her miserable. She chose to escape the life she seemed destined for by means of journalism and then through novels.By 1936 she had published her fourth novel. The the Civil War came. Barcelona, which had already been a center of great intellectual and artistic activity under the Second Republic, as well as one vastly more liberal when it came to the place of women in society, became one of the strongest centers of loyalist resistance to Franco. The eventual victory of fascism in Spain was a calamity of historic proportions, not only putting the resisters in physical danger but also bringing about a spiritual and cultural disaster much like the Saints experienced when Charles II was restored, or the proletariat in Paris in 1849 or the partisans in France only a few years after the defeat of the Spanish Republic.
When the civil war began the great liberal experiment of the Second Republic with its benefits for intellectual women, for Catalans and for many others came to an end with the victory of Franco’s fascist army. Catalonia, one of the centers of loyalist defense of the Republic (and more significantly from the rightist point of view, one of the most advance workers’ movements ever undertaken), felt the heel of repression. Though not technically banned, the local forces suppressed Catalan in many ways, including signs that said: “Don’t bark, speak Spanish!”
Rodoreda escaped repression and her family in well fell swoop. She left behind her son as well as her husband. She lived from 1939 to the Nazi occupation in Roissy-en-Brie, a small commune in the Île-de-France region east of Paris. She was doubly exiled: away from her country, but also because of the suppression of Catalan by the Falangists, exiled from her native tongue, and therefore from writing. In 1938 she had written Aloma, according to Pope dealt with “the violence of society, the degrading routine of marriage, the dangers of romantic delusions, the repression of the body, and the exploitation and abuse of women.” In France Rodoreda would meet writer Armand Obiols, with whom she would live until his death in 1971.
Obiols would offer extensive editorial advice to Rodoreda and her work thereafter became what made her internationally famous: objective, dispassionate, sparse and concrete. Pope showed, for example, how the influence of Obiols changed the narrative tone of Aloma between the time it was first published (before he knew her) and the 1969 edition. For years there were rumors that Obiols wrote her books, a charge that she told Castellet was “stupidity” (una bestiesa). As proof she said that most of her books were “women’s books” and men know nothing about women.
In France Rodoreda did not complete any writing. She supported herself by sewing. When she fled the Nazi she moved to Switzerland. There she took up painting. Over 80 of her watercolors, gouaches and collages are held by the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 30 of which were exhibited at Barcelona’s La Pedrera in 2008 during the centenary of her birth. They were stark portraits of women (mostly) with expressions of wonderment and silence.This would become a characteristic of her narrators when she took up writing in earnest again in 1958.
Her Writing, Briefly
Rodoreda’s writing spanned the styles of the twentieth century beginning with psychological realism, to modernist interior explorations to a unique form of fantastic realism. But in all these styles the narrative approach was much the same. The protagonist/narrator was usually a women of lower socio-economic status. José Ortega says that this helps contribute to her ingenuísmo. The nature of the narrative voice is unique, and the effect at first is hard to pinpoint. Scarlett points out that unlike most first person narrators the narration is almost exclusively testimonial and not confessional. Moreover, Restina says that by shutting off the “intellectual function” the narration achieves a descriptive power making the things observed more “real” and “concrete.”
Because there is no “intellectual filter” between the narrator and the reader the narration gives the effect of the kind of writing André Breton described as “pure psychic automatism.” The surrealist techniques of Rodoreda are anything but subliminal. Her “disorientation, random association and misogyny” in The Time of the Doves (as Everly points out) have specific and quite precise narrative functions. But beyond the surrealistic technique, the oddities that permeate her stories (especially the later ones) create what Garcia Marquez called an “atmosphere” from which her revelations take place. And the last novel, War, So Much War is the culmination of her experiments in this regard.
In 1973, with Franco turning over his role as head of government to Carrero Blanco, Rodereda returned to Catalonia where she would live until her death in 1983. Franco was in ill health for much of the time after her return, and he died in 1975. Perhaps his death made partisanship reside in her last novel, published in 1980, because no sides are expressly identified. (It is possible to surmise, however, that the narrator belongs to the loyalist militia, given how the enemy has airplanes and repeatedly bombs civilians.) The novel is not so much about a war, as it is that the war is the thing that makes everything else the way it is.
War, So Much War
Rodoreda’s last novel is a story told (or experienced for the most part) by Adrià Guinart, a young man who goes to war to escape his mother and see the world. But he soon regrets his decision to fight and he runs away when he can. Although unlike almost all other works by Rodoreda the narrator is male, his youth (he is barely past puberty) and his conduct make his gender ambiguous. When he was young and taken to school for the first time, Father Sebastià told his mother that they did not admit girls. The priest soon found him to be a “veritable archangel” and had his desk placed next to his own.
We know very little about his childhood but what we are told is told lyrically and so we seem to get a full sense of him. He evidently loved his father dearly, and his time with him is described tenderly: “On the Sundays when my father wasn’t of a mind to visit his cousins, he would take me for a walk. We spent hours sitting by the side of the road, and sometimes the air winnowed threads from the hearts of stunted flowers, and some would catch in my clothes.” His father, a railroad engineer, was haunted by a ghost—a man who would walk on the tracks, causing his father to screech the train to a halt, but in the examination later, no trace of the man would be found, and he received criticism. On the third time, he closed his eyes when the man refused to leave the tracks, and he felt bones being crushed when the train passed over him. The father died shortly after that experience, when Adrià was 11.
Adrià had a birthmark on his forehead, and when angry his mother told him it he reminded her of Cain. She raised carnations for sale near the train line, where trains could be heard all night from the house. The house had a yellow rose bush growing up its side. He grew to find the house suffocating, and began escaping from night to dawn. Then when he was 15, the war gave him an excuse to leave, and he went with his friend Rossend to join the fighting.
Adrià was not meant to fight, and they put him to work in the kitchen. Still he deserts. He can’t defend himself even when forced to fight and suffers severe beatings as a result. Even when they attempt to teach him to first a rifle, he refuses to learn, purposely aiming wide, because he had no interest in killing. (In fact the only two people he strikes are women: the miller’s wife, when she tries to seduce him and the old woman in the woods, when she discloses her vile acts.) His escapes are often fortuitous, often by deus ex machina. But his story is not about war directly. In fact, Rodoreda says in the prologue that the novel is not an account of war in terms of weapons but rather an internalized ordeal of disruption displacement and dead bodies. And most of the takes place outside the war zone but still where the state of war has untethered all bonds of normal morality and traditional attachments. The people Adrià meets live solipsistically in a world that offers nothing beyond their self-interest.
It is unfortunate that the Open Letter edition does not contain Rodoreda’s prologue, because it gives a good perspective on what she was trying to achieve. She says that the story was inspired by the 1965 Polish movie The Saragossa Manuscript (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie), a movie directed by Wojciech Has and released in 1965. The film is based on a novel of the same title (and subtitled “A Collection of Weird Tales”) by Count Jon Potocki published a century and a half previously (and released by Orion Press in 1960 in an English translation by Elizabeth Abbot). Both the movie and book begin with a battle in Saragossa, Spain, where an invading soldier, entering an abandoned building discovers and becomes engrossed by a manuscript and while reading it is captured by Spanish soldiers. He gets his captures to translate the story and the film proceeds mis en abîme fashion with the captive and the soldiers playing out the scenes in the manuscript. The main character (the prisoner) becomes the captain of the Walloon guards under the King of Spain, and he sets off on various adventures to prove his courage and worthiness to during his travels through Spain. This 19th century Don Juan must pass numerous tests to prove his courage and worthiness. The witty and intricate interlocking of the stories influenced none other than Spanish director Luis Buñuel. The Polish novel it was based on may have had an equally distinguished literary influence. Rodoreda says that her motivation was to create a story that experiences the world as poets do, “surprised at everything seen.” And while the novel and the film contain several symbolic images in common (eyes, hanged men, sleeping next to dead bodies) and while the protagonist in both is more a witness than actor, the novel is unlike the film. While the film is the unfolding of a gothic story, Rodoreda’s novel is a metaphysical exploration undertaken by one who has no experience in the world or in philosophy and therefore learns as he goes along.
The world Adrià wanders is fantastical, nightmarish and insubstantial, and his deep unconscious soul reverberates with what he sees. His experiences are sometimes no more than fleeting encounters, such as when, shortly after his first desertion he sees a boy in this distance about is age while artillery is being fired. The boy points to the direction of the cannon sound and shouts “Go home,” then disappears. Other encounters amount to complete episodes with conflict and resolution and then the need for Adria to move on. All of the encounters seem at first unrelated, except by subtly related symbols. For example a girl he falls in love with asks “out of the blue” whether he liked soap bubbles. She said: “The best thing about them was that, after one has waited so patiently to see them emerge from the tip of the reed and admire their iridescence, they burst while floating away as if they had been pricked.” He love her because she is unafraid, because she is independent, because it pained her to think of him dead and because she wants no one to follow her. Rather than have her reject him, he lets her go. Once gone, however, he decides he needs her and sets out to find her. Along the way the symbol returns. One night he fell asleep with uncommon peace and dreamed: “a boy who looked like me was blowing soap bubbles with a cane he periodically dipped in a tin can; the bubbles hovered over a drowned girl whose body was being swept in and out by the waves. … Many of the bubbles turned into human heads that floated upward gazing at the sky. … Death, with green teeth, sat on the belly of a cloud. Seven women with feet of gold huddled together blowing seven long trumpets that spewed bubbles into the sea, while death’s scythe awaited th order to begin reaping the floating heads …” His encounter at last with the girl provides the climax of the novel, it follows with the most fantastical elaboration on the symbol.
Despite the disorder, the horror and the fantastic of an unrecognizable world Adrià is constantly befriended by strangers who offer him unsolicited charity at crucial moments. Perhaps it is because he is young, or has blond hair, or looks like a girl or, as old woman who feeds him says, “those helpless creature eyes of yours.” Or maybe they recognize as disoriented by the world being out of joint as they are. Even nature reflects the disorder of the times. When Adria sees a meteor shower for the first time, the old man watching with him says: “The stars are weeping because we are at war.”
Even when war is far distant, the people Adria meets seemed hollowed out, or maybe it is just that with everyone looking after himself those who would be hollowed out whether or not there was war are now understandable. In the longest episode in the book Adria lives with a man who has a house, income and books. Unlike most, he doesn’t need to scramble for food, or indeed to do anything but contemplate. He goes to the sea at night to think quietly. His library is filled with mystical philosophy, which he practices by means of a mirror. When he dies Adri¡a reads his papers and learns of his discovery, one that involves a vision that haunts Adrià and a discovery that earns him nothing but hostility in the future.
The adventures that Adrià experiences are enough to earn the description “weird tales” but they are not gothic like Potocki’s are. In fact, their weirdness stems from their surreal nature in the literal sense of the term as above real or extra real. Everything that happens is strange only when we think of the world as normal and ordinary. But it is only ordinary when we stop examining the strangeness of it, the incompatibility of everyone’s selfish motives. Perhaps war is simply the metaphor for that incompatibility. And even those who want nothing more than to be ordinary (like the bricklayer whose house and wife are destroyed by the lone airplane on dropping a single bomb or the mother who amid all the corpses refuses to believe her baby is dead) can’t escape the immense incompatibility of others. Adrià’s travels, his quest, when he is forced to articulate it, is an expression of his need to see all the oddity in the world, to express his own selfish interests: “[T]he only thing I have is my own life. If I speak about it, it escapes, I lose it.” The generous man who wants him to quit his journeys, to stay and be his son, understands and pats him on his back: “… but the moment will come when you have a false life on your hands. You, what do you have inside? A garden or an inferno?” They discuss what it means to be Cain and the old man says: “… whenever you want to go, just go. Don’t say anything. I don’t like goodbyes.”
The novel races to its end. It is not a picaresque with a satisfying moral. Rather, like all great literature it ends with hard truth about the disparity between our desires and our possible attainments. It woud be almost unbearable but for the poetic telling, lyrical enough to soften the blow.
Carme Arnau, Introducció a la narrativa de Mercè Rodoreda: El mite de la infantesa (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1976).
Emelie L. Bergmann, “Flowers at the North Pole: Mercè Rodoreda and the Female Imagination in Exile,” Catalan Review 2:83-99 (1987).
J.M. Castellet, “Mercè Rodoreda,” Êls escenaris de la memòria (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1988).
Kathryn A. Everly, Catalan Women Writers and Artists: Revisionist Views from a Feminist Space (Lewisburg, [Pa.]: Bucknell University Press, ©2003).
Josefina Gonzalez, “Verbal Absences and Visual Silences in Quanta, quanta guerra …, La mort i la primavera, and Isabel i Maria,” in Voices and Visions: The Words and Works of Mercè Rodoreda edited by Kathleen McNerney (Selinsgrove [Pa.]: Susquehanna University Press, 1999).
José Ortega, “Mujer, guerra, y neurosis in dos novelas de M. Rodoreda (La plaza de Diamante y La calle de las Camelias“) in Novelistas femeninas de la postguerra española, ed. Janet W. Perez (Madrid: Porrúa, 1983).
Randolph D. Pope, “Aloma‘s Two Faces and the Chacter of Her True Nature,’ in The Garden across the Border: Mercè Rodoreda’s Fiction ed. Kathleen McNerney & Mancy Vosburg (Selingsgrove [Pa.]: Susquehanna University Press, 1994).
Joan Ramon Resina, “The Link in Consciousness: Time and Community in Rodoreda’s La Plaça del Diamant,” Catalan Review 2:22-46 (1987).
Elizabeth A. Scarlett, Under Construction: The Body in Spanish Novels (Charlottesville [Va.]: University Press of Virginia, 1994).