Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 28, 2022

Death in Spring, by Mercé Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennent

Not having left myself much time to read something for Spanish Lit Month at Winston’s Dad, I chose Death in Spring (La mort i la primavera) from the TBR, thinking that at 150 pages I could read it quickly, and that it was a great lead-in to #WITMonth as well. It’s also said to be Mercé Rodoreda’s masterpiece, published posthumously in 1986.  (I’ve previously read her short stories and In Diamond Square.)

Alas, Death in Spring turned out to be slow and reluctant reading because it is so violent and grotesque that I could only read it in the daylight hours. The publisher’s description at Open Letter Books didn’t really prepare me for what lay ahead:

Considered by many to be the grand achievement of her later period, Death in Spring is one of Mercè Rodoreda’s most complex and beautifully constructed works. The novel tells the story of the bizarre and destructive customs of a nameless town—burying the dead in trees after filling their mouths with cement to prevent their soul from escaping, or sending a man to swim in the river that courses underneath the town to discover if they will be washed away by a flood—through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy who must come to terms with the rhyme and reason of this ritual violence, and with his wild, child-like, and teenaged stepmother, who becomes his playmate. It is through these rituals, and the developing relationships between the boy and the townspeople, that Rodoreda portrays a fully-articulated, though quite disturbing, society.

The horrific rituals, however, stand in stark contrast to the novel’s stunningly poetic language and lush descriptions. Written over a period of twenty years—after Rodoreda was forced into exile following the Spanish Civi War—Death in Spring is musical and rhythmic, and truly the work of a writer at the height of her powers.

Wikipedia tells us that Mercé Rodoreda (1908-1983) is the most influential contemporary Catalan language writer. Although she lived to see the death of Franco, his fascist government was the catalyst for her to flee Spain and live in exile from 1939-1972.  Hugh Ferrer from the University of Iowa suggests in his review at Words Without Borders that Death in Spring is an address to oppressive, authoritarian government, especially Franco’s, and so it indeed seems.  The harsh, authoritarian blacksmith who rules the village with his despotic, irrational regime commands terror, not respect, but his rule seems impenetrable to change, a permanent blight on the villagers he brutalises.

Written in the style of a grisly fairy tale, the novella is narrated by a teenage boy observing the rituals and trying to make sense of things that make no sense.  It begins in the forest where he witnesses his dying father trying to pre-empt the savagery of the ritual that is inflicted on the dying so that their souls cannot escape.  There are moments of some relief when he frolics with his young stepmother—and moments of hope when he conspires with the blacksmith’s son to prevent some of the violence—but these episodes are fraught with tension because of the fear of discovery and its consequences.

The blacksmith’s son has been deliberately kept frail so that he cannot participate in the perilous annual ritual prescribed for all the men of the village.  They are required to swim in the river that the village straddles, many of them emerging disfigured by being hurled against the rocks.  Some of them die.  The narrator learns unspoken things from the blacksmith’s son, some of them just part of the superstitious nonsense his father insists on, but he also speaks some truths.  Some terrible things happen only because people believe they will happen.

The prisoner, cramped into a cage for the amusement of the villagers, tells the narrator that you had to live pretending to believe everything.  

Pretending to believe everything and doing everything others wanted; he’d been imprisoned when he was young because he knew the truth and spoke it.  (p.81)

This prisoner now says that after so many years of captivity and abuse, he is no longer a prisoner, and he no longer wants to speak:

Nothing mattered to him, living behind bars or no bars.  He was his own prison. (p.81)

The narrator is summoned by Senyor, the rich man who lives above the village, to help him evade the prescribed death.  He wants to die with his mouth open, without having cement shoved down it to prevent his soul escaping.

Remembering my father in his very old age, I am reminded that it is not death that people fear, it’s the manner of that death. I was also reminded me of those scenes in WW2 films, where the resistance fighter is in the hands of the Nazis, and they choose to use a cyanide capsule to deny their captors control of their death.

Senyor thinks that the prisoner is the bravest:

The prisoner—he called him the man in the cage—the man in the cage knew me, he was the bravest, forever looking straight in front of him, he’d always say: since you can’t choose the way you live, you should at least be able to choose the way die… (p.97)

But all Senyor’s wealth, power and prestige is no protection against the will of a population cowed into submission to the blacksmith and perverted into a loss of humanity:

But he had to die like everyone else.  They made him die in the centre of the Plaça.  They wanted to watch him. (p.101)

Senyor’s death is the catalyst for a sense of unease and some indications that the blacksmith’s power could be challenged.  Typical, it seems to me, that society only recognises the need for change when the rich and powerful suffer.  We are finally getting action on climate change only now that big business wants it.

I really feel for the translator Martha Tennent.  Translation involves reading and re-reading a work many times, and this novella would not only be difficult to render into English, but revisiting its catalogue of horrors must also have been a psychological strain.

Stu reviewed it too.  and so did Grant at 1st reading. For a discussion of metaphysical aspects of the novella, see Hugh Ferrer’s review at Words without Borders. 

Author: Mercé Rodoreda
Title: Death in Spring (La mort i la primavera)
Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2009, first published posthumously in Catalan in 1986
ISBN: 9781934824115, hbk., 150 pages
Source: personal library

 


Responses

  1. I’ve only read In Diamond Square by her, and I also listened to a BBC Radio 4 serial dramatisation/reading of it a few months ago.

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    • I was impressed by In Diamond Square, so good at presenting the war from a woman’s POV.
      I wish we could get those BBC dramatisations here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, Radio 4 and other BBC radio and TV are excellent sources of reading ideas. As book related dramas are obviously very abridged, if I enjoy something I always want to go back to the original books. Sky Arts has also broadcast various content from the literary festivals in Cheltenham and Hay – while it’s not as good as being able to afford to go there (haven’t attended either, but have done lots of crime fiction events in the past and we had a local festival in Wood Green, put on by a local indie bookshop a few years ago) – I don’t know if you’ve ever visited or stayed in London but we have quite a lot of Antipodeans here (though maybe not as many as West Central London).

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        • LOL Elkiedee, I was born in London!
          We left for sunnier climes when I was a youngster, but my husband and I have been back a few times, we always start any European trip with a few days in London to catch up with family and do the sightseeing that we didn’t do when I lived there.
          I love London, and the weather has always been kind when we’ve visited, but I have vivid memories of the bleak winters so I’m happier where I am.

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          • I was born in Leeds but my grandparents were born in New Zealand , both in large Irish families who emigrated from neighbouring villages in the west of Ireland. My mum managed to establish some how that we had a shared 3rd cousin with one of my A level history teachers and a similar distant relationship with one of the midwives who was in the delivery room when I was in labour with my first child.

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          • And yes, I did a lot more sightseeing when I lived 200 miles away than I do now after almost 27 years down here

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            • We do tend to neglect sightseeing in our own back yards…
              I do remember going to the V&A with my father, and being delighted by the royals’ dollhouses. I was hoping to see them again when we visited, but they’ve moved them to the Toy Museum, still on my bucket list. There are so many museums in London, (I’ve got a whole book about them to guide me) so it’s a long bucket list!

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  2. Having read a few of her novels now, this does stand out in terms of strangeness – it definitely has the power to disturb. I reviewed it back in 2018:

    Death in Spring

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  3. Crikey that sounds dark Lisa – I don’t think I could take that right now. And you’re right – a quick and painless death is what we all want, but in my experience it’s rarely that easy.

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    • It *is* very dark. I read somewhere that it was unfinished at the time of her death so it may be that further revisions would have changed it, but I think the intention would have been to cloak the horrors of the Franco regime in metaphor, and that may have made it more heavy-handed.

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  4. Even though this was a short book, I don’t think I could have read it to the end based on your description.
    I much preferred a different Catalan author – Maria Barbal

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    • I came by this one in an interesting way. As you known to here in the antipodes is ruinously expensive, but way back when, Open Letter Books had a special offer on their First 25 books that they’d published, postage free! So I got 25 books by authors I’d never heard of!

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