Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 17, 2017

In Diamond Square, by Mercè Rodoreda, translated by Peter Bush

In Diamond SquareI owe my discovery of this fine novel to my previous reading of The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda which came my way via Open Letter Books as part of their First 25 discount offer.  I had never heard of Mercè Rodoreda when I opened up the parcel and began cataloguing the 25 translations at Goodreads, and it was not until I read The Selected Stories for Spanish Lit Month at Winston’s Dad and #WITMonth (i.e. Women in Translation) that I realised what treasure I had, because Open Letter Books had also sent me Death in Spring (which I started reading last night).

But Open Letter had not sent me In Diamond Square, otherwise known in the 1986 translation by David H. Rosenthal as The Time of the Doves, and the recommendation from Grant at 1st Reading was all the persuasion I needed to get a copy of that too. It is very powerful writing.

In the history of modern warfare, civilians have suffered terribly.  Civilian deaths of those caught up in the conflict or suffering from malnutrition and disease sometimes outnumber military casualties by the thousands.  In Diamond Square begins by telling a love story but when the Spanish Civil War erupts it becomes a chronicle of the impact of war on ordinary people.

Narrated by a shop girl in Barcelona, the story begins when Natalia falls for the charming Joe, and they build a life together. He is more forceful than a modern woman would find acceptable, but Natalia loves him and she acquiesces in his obsessive hobby of pigeon-breeding, even when the pigeon lofts expand from the apartment roof to inside the house.

Joe is a carpenter, but as civil unrest increases, contracts dry up.

And work was going badly.  Joe said it was playing hard to get but it would come right in the end, people were agitated, and not thinking about restoring furniture or having new items made.  The rich were angry with the Republic.

[…]

And there was no work around and we were all very hungry and I saw very little of Joe because he and Ernie were up to something.  (p.72)

To help make ends meet, Natalia cleans the house of a wealthy couple whose decrepit house symbolises the decay of the aristocracy in Spain.  She has no one to care for the children, so little Anthony* and Rita have to be locked up in the dining-room while she is away at work.

(*Antonio, surely?  Why translate it??)

As the war encroaches she does her best to dissuade Joe from joining up, but Joe is not a man who takes much notice of a woman.  In this excerpt the text emphasises Natalia’s repeated attempts to keep him at home, with repetitions of I told him:

Both Ernie and Joe kept talking about the patrols and how they should go back to being soldiers, and do their duty. I told them it was all very well joining up but they’d been soldiers once and I told Ernie to leave Joe in peace and not to tempt him into joining up because we had enough headaches as it was. Ernie didn’t look me in the eye for a week.  And one day he came to see me, so what’s so wrong with joining up?

I told him to let other people do it, the ones who weren’t married like he was, and I wasn’t going to stop him but Joe had too much work on his hands at home and was too old.  And he said Joe would soon be in fine fettle because they were going to the mountains on manoeuvres… and I told him I didn’t want Joe joining up.

I was exhausted.  I was killing myself with work and everything  was piling up.  Joe didn’t see I needed a bit of help, rather than spending my whole life helping others, but nobody took any notice of me and they all wanted more from me as I too wasn’t a person with needs.  (p.102.)

With Joe away at the war, her employers decline to employ her any longer because Joe is fighting for the Republican cause.  Then there is real hardship, vividly portrayed in forceful images…

Things get so bad that Natalia has to send Anthony away to a camp for refugee boys, but it’s a terrible place.

When his time to stay there was over, Julie fetched him.  He was a changed boy.  They had changed him.  He was puffy, with a swollen pot belly, round cheeks, and two sunburnt, bony legs, a scabby, shaved head and a big boil on his neck.  He didn’t even look at me.  He went straight to the corner where his toys were and touched them with his fingertips […] and Rita said she’d not broken any.  […] And for supper, between the three of us, we ate a sardine and a mouldy tomato. And if we’d owned a cat, it would have found a single bone left over.

And we slept together.  Me sandwiched between my two kids.  That’s how we’d die if we died. (p.139)

She is reduced to selling everything, even the imposing chair that no one but Joe could use.

I had no work and nothing on the horizon.  I’d just sold all I had left: the bed I’d had as a young girl, the mattress from the bed with the columns, Joe’s watch that I’d wanted to give his son when he grew up.  Every scrap of clothing.  Wine glasses, hot chocolate cups, sideboard… and when nothing else remained I swallowed my pride and went back to back to the house of my old bosses.  (p. 141)

What small pity they have is swamped by their fear that a person like her could get them into trouble because she is a ‘red’ and in her despair she decides to kill her children rather than see them suffer any more.  But she doesn’t even have the money to buy the acid…

Natalia is a survivor, however, and there is a recovery of sorts, a melancholy accommodation that reflects the compromises that had to be made in Franco’s Spain.

Death in Spring is a very different sort of book. I’ll have to see how I get on with that one…

Author: Mercè Rodoreda
Title: In Diamond Square (La plaça del diamant)
Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush
Publisher: Virago Modern Classics, 2014
ISBN: 9781844087372
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $14.88

Available from Fishpond: In Diamond Square: A Virago Modern Classic


Responses

  1. I have a copy of this one, but it’s called The Time of the Doves.

    • That’s the older translation. Does it anglicise the names?

      • I haven’t read it yet, and it’s in a box stored.

        • Maybe someone else will know…

          • Ok, dug it out. It’s from Graywolf and they’re good.
            I see a Julieta, Quimet, Cincet. No I don’t see the names anglicized

            • *cranky frown* Now I’m wishing I had that translation instead.

  2. I shall be in Barcelona a fair bit in the foreseeable future (family just moving there) so had already decided to read this Catalan writer; your post confirms this decision. Thanks.

  3. How interesting! Jane at Beyond Eden Rock recommended this book to me when I posted a round-up of some of my previous WIT reads at the end of last month. It’s a fascinating backdrop for fiction, the Spanish Civil War.

    • Yes, I’ve read Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls which is magnificent, and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia which is unforgettable, but they were outsiders looking in on the fight for an ideal, whereas Roderedo writes of her homeland and the very simple ideal of having a home that we all share.

  4. Sounds brilliant, but why on earth did the translator anglicise the names? I thought we had left that practice behind.

    • Exactly. There were some other clumsy choices, but the names were what irritated me most. Every time I saw the name Ernie I thought of cockneys in London….

  5. The Spanish Civil War fascinates me and Rodoreda, a Catalan b.1909, must have been there. I think I’ll have to squeeze this one in.

    • Yes, she was working for the Republicans when the war broke out …
      Try to get the first translation which is called In The Time of the Doves rather than this one which is rather clunky IMO.

      • My copy is translated by David Rosenthal btw.

        • I wait to see what you think of it:)

  6. Hi Lisa,

    The translator of In Diamond Square, Peter Bush, addresses the anglicisation of the characters’ names here: https://www.virago.co.uk/peter-bush-on-translating-in-diamond-square-by-merce-rodoreda/

    I don’t know if I’m entirely convinced about his strategy here (namely, to convey the working-class nature of the characters without the distancing effect of the Catalan diminutives), but I’ve done a bit of checking, and a couple of reviewers in the know say that, on the whole, Bush’s translation is the one that best captures Rodoreda’s style.

    • Thanks for this, that’s interesting… but no, I’m not convinced either. Seriously, all the translator needed to do was to add a note at the front of the book explaining what the Catalan nickname endearments meant and left it to the reader.

      • Right. A simple “Translator’s Note” would have cleared things up nicely.

        Could the publisher have been partially to blame? I don’t know about Virago, but some of the big names have been known to sell readers short – especially with works in translation.

        • You could be right… but it could also be a case of the translator/publisher bringing their own baggage along: Pidgey and Joe might not seem inappropriate in the UK, but it seems unbelievably crass from here where we have had decades of migration with people keeping their own names and not anglicising them.

          • Here’s an interesting study of the two translations of La plaça del diamant currently in print: http://premisrecerca.uvic.cat/sites/default/files/webform/0977dcc6857f40f3f8244bc75d6648f4cbc332cc_TDR%20%28estudi%20comparatiu%20La%20pla%C3%A7a%20del%20Diamant%29.pdf

            Makes for some interesting reading.

            • I’m just reading this now, by coincidence I’ve been working on my blog post about a translation symposium I went to yesterday!

            • That is fascinating! It must have been an enormous research project, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a comparison like that. However did you find it?

              • Isn’t it? I like these “walk-through” translation analyses. No too many are available online – but I found this one thanks to google.

                • I wonder if students have to do something like this as an exercise if they’re learning translation at uni… maybe they workshop translations together to compare how they’ve done it. I do wish I’d done a language at university!


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