Mercè Rodoreda: El carrer de les Camèlies (Camellia Street)
This is probably Rodoreda’s best-known novel, recommended by Gabriel García Márquez. It is therefore probably no surprise that it is out of print in English. It is a profoundly feminist novel, telling the story of a young woman continuously exploited by men. Cecília is a foundling. As a baby, she is left in front of a house on Camellia Street, with a label attached to her, saying only Cecília C. She is taken in by an old couple, Senyor Jaume and Senyora Magdalena. They do not formally register her but do bring her up as their own. She tells of her upbringing in moderately affectionate terms, with Jaume and Magdalena and their two cousins, Maria-Cinta, and Raquel, being kind to her. Her first male friend is Eusebi and they become close. When the Spanish Civil War comes, Eusebi disappears to fight and Cecília runs away to live on her own. From that time on, she is exploited by men. She lives in a shack in a shantytown and tries to make a living sewing but is not very good at it and makes only a little money. When Eusebi returns, she starts a relationship with him but she is soon attracting the interest of Andrés, a plasterer, and the two men fight. In the meantime, she has made a few pesetas in prostitution. Eusebi is arrested for theft and sent to prison. He will try and escape a few times but is caught every time and beaten up. She never sees him again. She then move in with Andrés, though she is not particularly attracted to him. However, he eventually gets ill and dies.
From that time on she is looked after by various men. In particular, Marc, who is married and has, apparently, a sickly wife, gives her the use of half an apartment, where she stays and does little, except go to the local café, where she is watched by the various men there, including a retired general who takes her home a few times. She hates living in the apartment and she is seemingly harassed by her neighbour and the tailor opposite, though it is not entirely clear if this is genuine or paranoia on her part. Eventually Marc passes her off, temporarily, to Eladi, a man with an eye patch, who takes away her clothes and makes her wander around the apartment naked. While with him, she is either drugged or made drunk or both – she seems unable to know what is going on – and apparently sexually abused, before being dragged back to Marc’s apartment. There she is knocked around for her apparent infidelity with the general. When she reveals that she is pregnant, she is to all intents and purposes thrown out and has a miscarriage. She is recognised by one of the men from the local café, Martí, an architect, who takes her in and has her looked after. He seems to treat her well. The story ends with her meeting an old man from where she first lived, who tells her that he wrote the name Cecília on the label as he had a girlfriend of that name who had died.
Rodoreda tells her story of Cecília purely from Cecília’s point of view. She is a woman who tries to stand up for herself but, without education and on her own, she can only try to make the best out of the situation she is in. At all times she is exploited by a series of men – many more than the ones I have mentioned – from casual touching to outright aggression. We are left, at the end, with Martí, unsure what he will do and what she will become.
First published 1966 by El Club dels Novelòlistes
First English translation by Graywolf Press in 1993
Translated by David H. Rosenthal