May 2009

Kate Munning

fiction

Death in Spring by Mercé Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennent

The landscape of Death in Spring leaves the taste of blood in one’s mouth -- partly because there is a tide of bloodshed in this little novel’s 150 pages, but also because life and death eclipse each other almost completely in this lush tale of an unnamed narrator’s tumultuous adolescence in an isolated village in Catalonia.

Mercé Rodoreda’s novel opens with a boy in his early teens being stalked by a semi-anthropomorphic bee as he goes for a swim in the nearby river. In this first scene, his curious ramblings lead him to witness his own father entomb himself in a tree. Written in the first person, the rhythm of the words is almost like the narrator’s internal chatter, as if he is telling himself a story. This style contributes to a deliberate confusion; life-altering events flow together with the tiniest details, painting a picture not unlike Breugel’s famous “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” in which tragedy is glossed over in the buzz of the natural world and everyday life. Perhaps the boy is trying to make sense of the tumult that seems to have followed him throughout his short life. Because of the narrow point of view, it is difficult to discern if the narrator’s bizarre experience is typical for his place and time or if he really is the outsider he imagines himself to be.

Odors, both intoxicating and nauseating, trail the reader through the story. The slaughter of horses for meat coexists with the heavy scent of wisteria, whose vines embrace every building while threatening to choke the village to death. The prose is weightily descriptive without becoming overwrought; although it can overfill the reader’s head much like the novel’s villagers fill the mouths of the dying with pink cement before they take their last breath. Small touches of surrealism never wander into the sometimes-twee magical realism that is more typical of Latin American writers like Allende and Marquez. Nevertheless, there are bees with hidden agendas, soap bubbles that occasionally turn to glass, and trees that dutifully behave as tombs by consuming the dead with their bubbling sap.

What will make the deepest impression on most readers is the brutality of the villagers toward each other. This novel could be a case study for the “man’s inhumanity to man” unit we all had in high school lit class. The most obvious comparison will be made to Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” because of the village’s annual sacrifice of one randomly chosen young man to swim the river under the village, which invariably results in mutilation or death. The same can be said of the savage cement ritual, which disallows dignity even in death.

In fact, the river is one of the most powerful characters in the novel. It sustains the village with its water, reeds, and cleansing current even while it threatens the population, since the village is suspended precariously over rocks that span the water. This ambivalence is ubiquitous; even though the natural world permeates the narrator and the narrative, there is very little nourishment to be found from the people or the land they inhabit. Mothers are scarce, although pregnant women are everywhere. Men slaughter horses and fish until the river runs with their blood, but there’s very little eating except for furtive snacking on balls of horse fat and force-feeding of revelers at a funeral. What we see instead is darkness in the natural world -- predators, shit, sex in the darkness and deceit.

Much like the river, the theme of desire runs through the narrative. Mythology claims that the village was born out of the river when two shadows joined at the mouth in the dawn of time, but the villagers feel a strong responsibility to root out desire and beat it out of each other. They go so far as to keep a mysterious prisoner in the plaza who seems to be a casualty of desire, a public example and sometime sage that the boy and his cohorts return to again and again to hear speak on the topic.

This oppressive atmosphere is informed by the author’s experience living as a Catalonian under the oppressive rule of General Franco and by spending many years in exile. Death in Spring was published posthumously in 1986 and has just been translated into English for the first time. Anyone who has seen The Spirit of the Beehive, a film that also takes place in post-civil war Spain and features bees and monstrous behavior, will recognize comparisons immediately. While the subject matter is different, the hallucinogenic, through-the-looking-glass sensation is the same, an impression of the topsy-turvy world going forward and backward at the same time under a tyrannical regime.

It is tempting to perceive the feudal, aristocratic Senyor as Franco himself, threatening and invisible in his mansion perched on a cliff high above the village, but ultimately he is not the source of the viciousness. The bow-legged village blacksmith is a better representative of the dogged morality and conservatism that keeps many villagers clinging to their savage practices, even as a growing but disorganized group of young people begin to undermine the rituals that keep the villagers’ superstitious fear at bay.

If all of this sounds overwhelming and confusing, it is -- and intentionally so. Accompanying this teenage boy’s stumbling through fear, desire, grief and bewilderment is muddy enough to make any reader’s head swim. It’s no accident he wanders the streets and countryside at night, rejected by his neighbors and his natural environment alike. This is not a plot-driven novel. Rodoreda’s psychological technique makes the reader wander with her in the wilderness, and thanks to translator Martha Tennent’s impressive skill, we can follow the author’s vibrant language into the narrator’s tempestuous, hostile world -- real or imagined. 

Death in Spring by Mercé Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennent
Open Letter Books
ISBN: 1934824119
140 Pages