#RivetingReviews: West Camel reviews THE TIME OF CHERRIES by Montserrat Roig

There is a deep irony to the title of this Catalan writer’s luminous novel, elegantly translated by Julia Sanches. It is taken from a song, written during the Paris Commune by poet Jean-Baptiste Clément, which tells of the ‘springtime of joy’ that will arrive after the coming conflict and the ‘terrible repression’ that will follow it. As the left-wing activist Emilio tells Natàlia, one of the novel’s protagonists: ‘The poet knew the time of cherries would come with its own share of heartache … but he wished for it anyway.’

The Times of Cherries takes place in 1974, just two years before the death of Franco and the beginning of Spain’s transition to democracy. Natàlia has returned to Barcelona having spent more than a decade abroad and finds change in the air. It seems that the heartache, repression and pain of the dictatorship might just be giving way to the joyful spring her boyfriend Emilio wished for. 

Roig’s irony lies in what form that ‘time of cherries’ is likely to take. The two families the novel focuses on – the Clarets and the Miralpeixs – are both from the well-heeled middle class, and their current concerns seem deeply bourgeois. When we first meet Natàlia’s sister-in-law, Sílvia, another of the book’s protagonists, her focus is on finding time to go to the gym and the salon – ‘I need to get my legs and moustache waxed’ – and what starter she’ll serve for dinner that evening. Natàlia’s aunt, Patrícia, has similarly materialistic concerns: 

‘I managed to get almost everything back from the pawn shop, you know: the Sèvres crystal, the Limoges dinner service … the silverware, wine glasses that chimed when you flicked them’

These middle-class considerations contrast sharply with the political background from which the two families hail – exemplified most strongly by the former Miralpeix patriarch, Joan, who, in Natàlia’s words ‘used to be a red and was now kind of Catholic and very authoritarian’. Having fought on the Republican side in the civil war, Joan was incarcerated in a concentration camp, where Franco’s Nationalists forced him to renounce communism in writing – and in Castilian: ‘a language that wasn’t his own’. 

The experience had the desired effect:

‘They needed to recast their thinking … dress how they wanted … fall into a long, deep slumber … the only possible revenge: making money – to greet people as they were told, and go to church.’

And Joan does make money. He becomes a highly successful architect and passes the family business on to his son, Lluís, husband of Sílvia, who lives a life of modern apartments, tennis clubs, trips over the border to France to watch the latest porn films, and smoking Montecristo cigars with his friends. Can it be that the time of cherries – what the Republicans and Catalan revolutionaries suffered for – will take the form of Sílvia’s chaotic Tupperware party, as we see in a central scene in the novel? 

No, it seems, is Roig’s answer. The great force of the trauma her characters carry – not least Natàlia herself, who had undergone a horrifically botched abortion before her departure from Spain – and the deeply political discussions the book engages in, particularly about the changing place of women in Spanish society, suggest that there is more pain and repression to endure, and reconciliation with the past is still a long way off. 

But there is hope: towards the end of the novel, Natàlia spends time with the younger generation – her nephew Marius, and some of his friends: ‘if you want the time of cherries’, she tells him, ‘then you need to have faith that it will come.’

Reviewed by West Camel

THE TIME OF CHERRIES

Written by Montserrat Roig

Translated by Julia Sanches

Published by Daunt Books (2024)

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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.

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