Llorenç Villalonga: Bearn o la sala de las muñecas (Bearn or The Doll’s Room; The Doll’s Room)
This novel was first published in Spanish in 1956 as Bearn o la sala de las muñecas (Bearn or The Doll’s Room). It was published in Catalan as Bearn o La sala de nines in 1961. The first English translation was published in 1986 by Iberia, a Madrid-based publisher, as Bearn or The Doll’s Room (they also published French and Italian translations). The same translation was published in the UK by André Deutsch in 1988. The same translation was published again by Dalkey Archive Press as The Doll’s Room in 2010.
Villalonga says at the beginning of the book that it is a poem of Mallorca, of a certain Mallorca, that is: mine. It opens in 1890, and consists of a very long letter from Don Joan Mayol, chaplain of Bearn, to Don Miquel Gilabert, Secretary to the Cardinal of Spain. The two are apparently good friends. He tells Don Miquel that the Senyors (i.e. the lord and lady of the manor, Don Toni and Dona Maria Antònia) have both died, within an hour of one another, apparently both by natural causes, though, of course, we have our suspicion that there might be more than meets the eye. No-one, except for Don Joan himself, seems particularly concerned. The heirs – niece and nephews – who have not visited Bearn for many years – arrive but are excluded by Don Joan till the proper legal formalities are resolved. Don Joan fears the property may be sold, which would be sad, but he hears of a rich US relative who has turned up and he hopes that he could be the saviour.
We then turn to the back story. Don Joan was originally a swineherd but Don Toni saw something in him and sent him to school. He is brought up in the family. He has the run of the house except for one room – the dolls’ room – which is perpetually locked. Rumour has it that a mad relative died there. Don Toni had not entered it for many years and will not allow anyone else to do so. We get hints throughout the book as to what it may contain.
Don Joan stays with the family for all of their lives, apart from the period when he is studying at the seminary. He remains devoted and loyal to them both. The estate is badly run, depending on what happens to grow naturally there – olives, acorns and pine trees (for timber) – with no effort made to improve the situation. As a result, debts build up, not helped by the Senyors’ poor financial management.
Two foreign journeys do not help and nor does Don Toni’s regular affairs with the local young women (though he declines to recognise any of his illegitimate children.). When Dona Xima, his eighteen year old niece, arrives to stay, Don Toni is smitten. Feigning an excuse that he wished to see the premiere of Gounod’s Faust, the pair head off to Paris. Xima, who is beautiful, attracts all and sundry while there, including the Emperor, and Don Toni soon returns, with his tail between his legs, while Xima stays. Not surprisingly, Dona Maria Antònia is very upset by this and she moves out, staying away for ten years, with the couple only meeting once a year at the festivities for the saint’s day. Xima will continue to haunt them till their death.
The other journey is financed by selling off a pine forest and enables the three of them (i.e. including Don Joan) to go to Rome, where they get a private audience with the Pope. However, to the surprise of both Don Joan and Dona Maria Antònia, Don Toni has arranged a side detour to Paris. The visit to Paris does not go well.
Much of the focus is on Don Toni as seen by Don Joan. Don Joan describes him as a pernicious Socratic sceptic. He is a believer in the old nobility while accepting that it is dying out and will, in his view, be replaced by socialism. He is very interested in modern technology. He builds a steam-driven car (clearly the work of the Devil, according to his wife, the local priest and the local people). While on his second journey to Paris, he meets the Tissandiers and goes for a ride in their electric-powered dirigible. He even imports the first bottle of soda water into Mallorca.
While continually unfaithful to his wife, he clearly loves her. He is a very learned (though not educated) man. Throughout the book, he is writing his Memoirs, which he finishes just before his death and for which he gives Don Joan a generous sum of money to have published. He has an extensive library which is not approved of either by his wife or Don Joan, as it contains books considered heretical (Voltaire!). Apart from his extra-marital relationships, he tries to be good to the people of the village, though he has a cruel streak, being not adverse to whipping his employees who misbehave. He does not, however, like his niece or nephews (Xima excluded) and they do not seem to like him. Don Joan and, later, Tomeu, a young lad like Don Joan, are his substitute sons. Indeed, he is a contradictory mixture.
As well as the interesting plot lines – the dolls’ room, Xima and the deaths of the Senyors – the book works well because of Don Joan’s conservative but affectionate account of his employers and, above all, because of the complex character of Don Toni, a man with his weaknesses but also with his strengths. Above all, it is clear that Villalonga aims to give a portrait of a way of life that, by the time he wrote this book, had long since disappeared but which he (and presumably others) still remember with strong affection.
First published by Atlante in 1956
First published in English by Atlante in 1986