Born in 1908, Mercè Rodoreda is widely and variously acclaimed as the most-renowned, most-influential writer in Catalan of the twentieth century. Yet in English-speaking countries she is considered Catalonia’s – and Spain’s – best-kept literary secret, with critics and writers declaring their bemusement at why she’s not more loudly trumpeted. As critic Marina Porras (who has curated some of this Riveter’s Catalan section) says, ‘with every translation … more readers declare to have made a literary discovery’.
Rodoreda began her writing career as a journalist and short-story writer in 1930s Barcelona, in her words, living ‘an authentic, brilliant, Catalan life’. During this time she produced a wealth of short stories, as well as five novels. Notably, none of this work is available in English.
But the ‘brilliant and authentic’ life was cut short by the Civil War, and Rodoreda went into exile in France, along with many of the writers in her circle. Any hope of a comfortable, if displaced, existence was soon scotched, however, by the outbreak of the Second World War, which saw Rodoreda fleeing once again, settling eventually in Geneva. Her health and literary output both suffered – she wrote poetry and some short stories, but published no major work until the short-story collection Vint-i-dos contes in 1958, pieces from which can be read in English in 2011’s The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennent.
For a time during this exile she worked as a seamstress – an experience she draws on with great impact in her story ‘The Threaded Needle’, available in English in The Selected Stories, in which a seamstress works alone at home on a nightgown for a bride, her thoughts a combination of hope for the future – ‘Three or four years from now I’ll set up business for myself. I’ll hang a brass sign on the door’ – and regret for her unfulfilled life: ‘If I had married my cousin, I would have made myself a white, white nightgown. Just like this one.’
But it is not until 1961 and the novel La plaça del diamant (translated into English as ‘The Time of the Doves’ and in Virago’s 2013 edition as ‘In Diamond Square’) that the Rodoreda who was to be acclaimed as the greatest Catalan writer of the century truly emerges. In 1982, a year before she died, she wrote a ‘prologue’ to La plaça del diamant, in which she describes her protagonist, Natalia, as ‘in a constant state of wonder’ – ‘[she] has only one thing in common with me, namely the fact that she feels at a loss in the midst of the world’.
This sense of wonder, of being at a loss when faced with her existence, is surely Rodoreda’s reaction to the ordeals of war and exile. And it is surely what informs that particular position in which Rodoreda places each of her protagonists in the sequence of novels that made her name in the sixties, seventies and eighties.
In In Diamond Square, Natalia faces a succession of trials, beginning when she falls in love with Joe, who abuses her physically and mentally, and nicknames her the derogatory ‘Pidgey’. When the Civil War breaks out, Joe goes to the front and is killed, leaving Natalia and her children close to starving. She eventually meets and marries an honest, caring shopkeeper, yet her sense of confusion at her lot in life remains: ‘I was thinking how I had done everything I had ever done not knowing where I was or when, as if it were all planted and rooted in a time that had no memory’.
In Camellia Street (1966) this sense of bewilderment and being out of place is even more marked. Cecilia, the protagonist, is a foundling, a fact she’s regularly reminded of, along with speculation about her parentage: ‘They said [my father] must have been a wicked man and I had ears like a murderer, with the lobes flat against my cheeks.’ She seeks escape, and as a teenager breaks from home completely, quickly falling into prostitution and then, through chance rather than design, becoming a kept woman, a courtesan. Compared to the penury of Natalia’s existence, Cecilia’s life is luxurious, but, unlike Natalia, she seems absolutely without choices, robbed of all agency. Her confusion at the world takes the form of apparent paranoia – about her neighbours spying on her, about the cream-coloured car always parked on her street. Yet, it transpires that she is being manipulated, that to the men around her she is an asset to be bought, abused and sold.
In her lowest moment, when Cecilia is drugged, kept captive and sexually abused, we see Rodoreda turning to an impressionistic technique she’ll use regularly but sparingly across her later work to express such moments of trauma and confusion:
‘The flames flickered back and forth and a voice said they weren’t dead people, they were from the cognac, but sad and lonely, they flickered all around the cemetery and kept going in one door and out the other and fluttered around the foot of the bed.’
Even in A Broken Mirror (1962), which in many respects is Rodoreda’s most conventional novel, we see this technique used to great effect. The book is, to all intents and purposes, a family saga, covering three generations of a wealthy Barcelona family from the late nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War. Rodoreda reserves her impressionistic passages not for the family members, but for those who observe it from the outside. When the loyal housekeeper discovers the broken mirror of the title in the wrecked and abandoned villa towards the end of the book, she drinks a glass to the family members who have passed away:
‘She was offering it to the dead in a toast of fear that was not quite fear. In the glass, swimming in the golden liquid, there was a speck: a boy, as small as a fly, holding a tiny boat in his hand, amid the bursting bubbles. She picked him up between index finger and thumb; she did not want him to drown.’
The boy is the family’s youngest child, Jaume, who has drowned – in the pond in the villa’s garden. His death is labelled an accident by the family, but the reader is permitted sight of the moment of his death – and it is at the hands of his brother and sister. There is no clear explanation given, no exploration into the siblings’ motives. The reader is left with a sense of stupefaction at something so deliberate and so cruel.
The source of this confoundment at senseless killing and destruction is most evident in two late novels, War, So Much War (1980) and Death in Spring (published posthumously in 1986). Both deal with the experience of war, but in indirect ways. War, So Much War, is a picaresque tale, in the style of Don Quixote, in which a teenaged deserter, Adriá, travels the Spanish countryside, meeting a variety of characters, each with a story of their own. The sense is that he’s making his way home, but, like Cecilia in Camellia Street or Natalia in In Diamond Square, his agency is limited or vanishing as he falls into the events of each chapter and is, by turns, abused, given care and hospitality, tricked and rewarded. At the close of the book, nothing he’s experienced seems to exist, there’s ‘only me and that fever’.
Death in Spring is Rodoreda’s most experimental book – but at the same time the one where she seems most obviously to confront the demons that have plagued her since the outbreak of the Civil War. This confrontation is indirect, however, for the novel is a grand allegory. The location is a cliffside village, threatened from above by the beetling rocks, and from below by a perilous river, the inhabitants bound by a series of strange rituals, rules and beliefs, their lives dominated by violence and the threat of exile. Her protagonist, like Adriá in War, So Much War, is a teenaged boy, set adrift in this damaged and dysfunctional society, bewildered by its strictures but with no means of getting away – his destiny to die a violent death only to return to this violent world. Pondering this circular fate, he sits by the river and moulds figures from the clay on the banks; ‘a whole village of figures’, to whom he speaks tenderly.
‘Tenderness changed me into water and everything that fled from me was in that water. I don’t know why. I don’t know what those mornings were because no words exist for them. No. No words exist. They have to be invented.’
Perhaps that was Rodoreda’s conclusion – that faced with the senseless violence that robbed her of the promise of her ‘brilliant and authentic’ life, she was at a loss, she had no words. The evidence of her later works suggests, however, that she managed to invent the words she needed, and used them to express that universal feeling of bafflement at the world in which we find ourselves. It is exactly her ability to express this feeling that so strongly engages new readers with her work and gives each the sense they have made a discovery.
The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennent, published by Open Letter (2011)
In Diamond Square, translated by Peter Bush, published by Virago (2013)
Camellia Street, translated by David H. Rosenthal, published by Graywolf Press (1993) / Open Letter (2018)
A Broken Mirror, translated by Josep Miquel Sobrer, published by Daunt Books (2017)
War, So Much War, translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent, published by Open Letter (2015)
Death in Spring, translated by Martha Tennent, published by Open Letter (2015)
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West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015 and is currently working for Orenda Books. He has written two novels, Attend and Fall. He is the editor of the Riveter magazine and the #RivetingReviews for the European Literature Network.