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Montserrat Roig: El temps de les cireres [The Time of Cherries]

The title of the novel comes from Jean Baptiste Clément‘s song Le Temps des cerises. Clément was a poet from the time of the Commune. His song points out that the time of cherries is very short. The boyfriend of Natalia, the heroine of this novel, will sing it when his in prison following a demonstration.

Our heroine is Natalia Miralpeix. She is approaching forty and she has been away from Barcelona, her home town, for twelve years, spent primarily in England (though also in France and Italy). While in England she had a live-in relationship with Jimmy. That ended amicably and Jimmy is now with someone else. When later asked both why she left and why she returned, she cannot come up with a good answer, though it is clear that her departure was partially because of her difficult relationship with her father and because she did not want to become the full-time carer of her sick mother, as her father expected her to do.

She has a complicated family situation. Her parents, Joan and Judit, had three children: Natalia, Lluis and Pere. Pere had Down’s Syndrome and Judit devoted herself to him at the expense of Natalia and Lluis. When Pere died, Judit became very despondent and her relationship with her surviving children did not improve. Indeed, Natalia says that she had never had a proper conversation with her mother. Judit died while Natalia was in England. She did not come back for the funeral which has exacerbated her already poor relationship with her father. Natalia has also long since fallen out with Lluis though gets on reasonably well with Silvia, his wife, though she finds Silvia very uncultured (she found the Tate Gallery boring on a visit to London to see Natalia). Silvia also seems very fussy and demanding. She states that what brings her greatest happiness is eating sweet things, which is something of problem as she is constantly trying to diet. Joan is now living with Lluis and Silvia. Both now and, indeed in the past, he says that his greatest happiness is found in sleeping. After the Civil War, he made a lot of money as an architect, which, he claimed, was a bit like sleeping

Fortunately, Natalia has remained on good terms with her Aunt Patricia. Patricia is a widow and was married to a poet, Esteve Miràngels. We gradually realise, and so does Natalia on her return, that Esteve was very controlling and abusive. The couple had no children. Patricia still lives in the same flat, with her very large maid, Encarna, who seems to be in charge of what happens in the flat. During the course of the book, Encarna will get married rather late in life.

We know exactly when Natalia returns, as it just after the execution of Puig Antich which took place 2 March 1974. Puig Antich was executed because a police officer was killed in a shoot-out during a robbery he was involved in. The execution was very controversial. It was the first one in Spain for eleven years and even the Pope had pleaded for mercy. Most people had expected a last minute reprieve from Franco. Natalia is very much affected by it, not least because it seems to represent the Spain she left. What Catalan and Spanish readers will also know is that Franco will die in under two years.

Much of the novel is the story of the various key individuals. We follow the difficult relationship of Patricia and Esteve. Esteve did not believe in working, just writing poetry. He had married Patricia solely because he was told she was very rich. Indeed, her father was but he fell out with his children and disinherited them, only partially leaving them something – a house in the case of Patricia – on his deathbed. Indeed, there was a period when Patricia and Esteve were almost starving, though they still had a maid. Patricia has been partially liberated by her widowhood but now consoles herself with drink and has various health problems.

We also follow the relationship of Joan and Judit. When he first met her, he thought that she looked like a Modigliani painting and was as pale as death. He fell for her but his love was more ethereal than sexual. His parents had had a difficult relationship, his mother dying in childbirth and people saying that she was a victim of her husband. Now he just wants to sleep.

Silvia with her love of sweet things also does not have a particularly good marriage. Her father was a successful architect and Lluis says to her that what he most likes about her is her father. She seems to be unsure of herself much of the time. Her very first words were The girl is afraid and she still is. Indeed, she tells Natalia that she does not seen Lluis as a husband but more as a father figure.

We also follow Natalia’s early life, particularly one traumatic period. She and her boyfriend Emiliano (a man from a rich home but who states that he is a communist) joined a demonstration in support of the Asturian miners. The police brutally repressed the demonstration. Emiliano and Natalia almost escaped by hiding in a church but were caught when they exited. One young woman was badly beaten up in front of them and they were arrested. Natalia got out thanks to the influence of Silvia’s father but Emiliano did not. Soon after, Natalia realised that she was pregnant, apparently being totally ignorant of birth control (though contraception was not available in Spain at that time). Abortion was, of course, totally illegal.

Natalia is back to look for a job. She had learned photography from Jimmy’s uncle while in England and wants to make a career of it and meets people who can help her get a job. But she also needs to try and come to terms with her family. Inevitably, there are one or two guilty secrets that come out.

She is also trying to deal with the fact that, in some respects, Barcelona has changed, while in others it has not. She sees the changes with her nephew Mariùs who writes poetry and is part of a group exploring new forms of poetry. At a publisher’s, she learns that the Spanish novel is taking new directions. Mariùs, of course, follows modern music, liking Jimi Hendrix and Jane (sic) Joplin and preferring the Rollings (sic) to Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Not surprisingly, the women in this novel do tend to suffer (or have suffered) from their men. There is not one happy relationship in the book, at least in Spain. But Roig is not unaware of the flaws of the women, all of whom have their own weaknesses.

The novel works well, not least because it takes place at a period when Spain is starting to change and is about to undergo a major change with the death of Franco. However, it does hark back. The Civil War had a profound effect on most of the characters alive at the time and its effect is still very much felt, as is the case in many other Catalan and Spanish novels. Natalia’s troubled family situation and the difficult life of her family members are very well done by Roig. It is a pity that it is not available in English.

First published by Edicions 62 in 1977
No English translation
First published in German as Zeit der Kirschen by Elster-Verlag in 1991
First published in Spanish as Tiempo de cerezas by Argos Vergara in 1977