January 2016

Lucia Cowles


War, So Much War by Mercč Rodoreda, translated by Maruxa Relaņo and Martha Tennent

"Ever since the war began," Adriā explains, "Rossend -- the junkman's son, two years my senior -- had not stopped talking about it. He told me he was joining up. Why don't you come with me?"

And so the protagonist of Mercč Rodoreda's novel War, So Much War launches himself into the Spanish Civil War -- a grotesquely violent fight between a loosely united, reform-oriented left, and the blunt force of Franco's fascist regime. The most renowned writer in the Catalan language, and the leading voice in the literary remembrance of the Spanish Civil War, Rodoreda's novels and short stories have been translated into over thirty languages and distributed worldwide. This November, Maruxa Relaņo's and Martha Tennent's English translation of War, So Much War, joined a selection of Rodoreda's work available in English. These include Camellia Street, My Cristina and Other Stories, The Time of the Doves, and Death In Spring.

Mercč Rodoreda began her writing career in Catalonia, where she was raised and where she lived with her first husband -- an uncle fourteen years her senior -- before fleeing the country in 1939. She lived in France during World War II, escaped Paris before the Nazi occupation, and eventually settled in Geneva, Switzerland. During her long exile, Rodoreda published many stories and novels, including her most famous, La plaįa del Diamant (The Time of the Doves), while supporting herself as a seamstress. In 1974 she returned to Catalonia, to the town Romanyá de la Selva, where she built a small house and a garden and continued to write up until her death in 1983. She wrote War, So Much War (Quanta, quanta guerra...) during this late epoch in her life. The novel was published in Catalan in 1980 and won the Serra d'Or Critic's Award that same year.

Characteristic of Rodoreda's later work, War, So Much War abandons realism in favor of a mystical, symbol-laden landscape. The novel borrows the structure of medieval romance, a form satirized by the canonic Spanish modern novel Don Quixote, and by Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In broad strokes, a medieval romance follows the wandering journey of a chivalric narrator who searches after, and ardently defends, ideal love.

An over-serious, feminine boy, Adriā Guinart seems fated for his mythic role. His childhood priest calls him an archangel; his mother compares him to Cain from the Book of Genesis. In the logic of a medieval romance, Adriā sits in the seat of the valorous protagonist while Eva, his love interest and counterpart -- curious, independent, boyish -- represents ideal femininity. In Rodoreda's fictive world, natural (or ideal) love involves a Petrarchan yearning that impinges neither person's freedom. Eva describes her attachment to Adriā during one of their encounters: "I like you... because you don't tie me down and because of that look you have on your face. I've only been with you for a few hours but I've always remembered you; I think of you often, even if I don't see you."

For his part, Adriā models chivalry in his choice to allow Eva to leave him freely. "Want to come? No. I said no to please her."

In the manner of Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Adriā encounters an assortment of people and towns on his journey; such exchanges are, in fact, the novel's primary material. By introducing a plethora of distinct characters and towns, Rodoreda brings to life the many voices ensnared in the ideological maelstrom of the Civil War.

Class emerges as a defining tension: wealthy men languor in fear or in moral rot within their estates; one is burned alive with his property. Working-class craftsman rebuild bombed-out homes. A farmer beats his dog, and then Adriā, for a theft that his daughters committed -- a thinly veiled allegory, perhaps, for the Nationalist army's massacre of working people, while protecting the landowning classes (or a suggestion that the downtrodden are rarely those responsible for the moral crime).

Rodoreda's signature flourishes are stitched into the prose. Nostalgic for her own childhood marked by a doting grandfather and his gardens, she frequently incorporated flowers in her writing to signify home. In War, So Much War, Adriā's home is defined by the smell and sight of his mother's carnation fields. Trees, another common symbol in Rodoreda's work, appear in the novel as connective symbols between Heaven and Earth. Bodies are buried so they might grow into trees, and as a child, Adriā -- perhaps wishing for an early ascension -- plants himself in the garden, hoping to become "all branches and leaves."

As the war wears on, Adriā stops speaking. "Go home," mysterious voices urge him. First he must confront death and loss, and -- in one of the novel's most compelling passages -- discover the force of his own fear.

I had become two people: the one sweating with fright and the one who believed there was no reason to be afraid. How could that be? [...] I suddenly let myself drop to the ground, my body curled into a ball, my eyes so wide they hurt. I must move, walk. Escape whatever it was that was weighing on me like a rock, slowly burying me beneath stones so large that I found myself powerless to dislodge them.

War no longer only swirls around Adriā, it has manifested inside of him too.

The final chapters provide War, So Much War its emotional heft. Here, Adriā regains his agency, acting with decisive moral conviction to restore some dignity to the atrocities he encounters but was unable to prevent. This last section includes a searing symbolic portrait of the corrupt body of the Catholic Church, and an equally moving, fever-dream imagination of a naturally embedded Christian force, working outside the parameters of human perception to consecrate the dead.

Mercč Rodoreda lived in exile for most of her writing life. Adriā too seems an exile in his own country. Estranged from his home and his love, he has nothing to hold onto -- no philosophical, patriotic or familial ligaments outside of himself. "My life is my own," Adriā explains to a fisherman. "And now the only thing I have is my own life. If I speak about it, it escapes, I lose it." Therein lies the transformation of a restless boy into a wizened survivor, one who cannot say if he will pull himself out from under war's shroud. "Would the remembrance of evil dissipate or would I carry it with me always, like a malady of the soul?" he wonders. And then, as he sets out in search of home, "I felt as ancient as the world."

War, So Much War by Mercč Rodoreda, translated by Maruxa Relaņo and Martha Tennent
Open Letter
ISBN: 978-1940953229
220 pages