Mercè Rodoreda: La mort i la primavera (Death in Spring)
If you have read any other novels by Mercè Rodoreda, you will find that they tend to have a more urban setting. This one definitely does not. It is set in a remote village and narrated by a fourteen-year old boy. Nature, inevitably, plays a key role. While Nature is not generally horrifying, it is threatening and omnipresent.
The other aspect of this novel which is both threatening and omnipresent are the people or, more particularly, their behaviour, their customs and their rituals.
Our unnamed narrator seems to live a fairly solitary life. His mother is dead and his father has remarried. His mother had a strange habit (many of the people in this book seem to have strange habits) of howling outside the window of newly-weds. Her mother had done the same. When his father remarried, the narrator claims to have heard his mother howling outside their window. His new stepmother is only sixteen years old and seems to do very little. She also has lost her mother – she hanged herself.
According to the blacksmith (who later claims to be the narrator’s biological father), when you are born in this village you get a ring, a plaque and a tree. However, it is not clear if this is generally known, at least by the young people, as the blacksmith tells him not to tell anyone. We do know that when the older people go to the forest they leave the children locked in the kitchen cupboard and some of them have almost suffocated.
Early on in the book, the narrator sees a man seemingly preparing a tree and then going into it. Only later does he tells us that this man is his father and he is about to follow a death ritual, customary in this village. A crowd of people appear and a strange ceremony takes place. A man, whom the narrator does not know, whispers to him that he enjoys watching people die.
After his father’s death, the narrator becomes closer to his stepmother and they seem to do things together (though none of it seems to involve earning money or obtaining food). They travel in the area, visiting the cemetery and the cave we have seen at the beginning of the book, where the inhabitants obtaining a red powder which they use to colour the paint for painting their houses.
The strange ways of Nature are a large part of the fascination of this book. The village itself was born from the earth’s terrible unrest. The mountain was cleaved and it collapsed into the river, scattering the water through the fields. The river flows under the village and the villagers are always concerned that it will undermine the village. Every year some man has to swim (naked) under the village to see whether there is a blockage. Some come out unscathed, others are hurt and some lose their face. They are know as the faceless and seem to be like untouchables. Later in the book there is a drought which also causes much concern.
The strange (to us) behaviour of the villagers also has its fascination, from their habit of eating pregnant mares at their funeral Festa to the feral children who run around naked and attack passers-by, including our narrator. They only punish thieves and they punished them by taking away their humanity. There is one prisoner and he is locked in a small cage just large enough for a person to sit in, but not lie down. He is fed but abused.
Time also seems irrelevant. The blacksmith creates a sundial but A year later someone had stolen the pin, but no one cared; no one wanted time in their lives. However, his stepmother stands in the sun and her shadow moves. She comments Time is me — and you.
The village has a Senyor, a lord, who is crippled and dying but he does not want to die in the conventional way, like the other villagers. However, the choice is not his, despite his position. The villagers are more afraid of the Caramens, a ghostly people who are like shadows and whom no-one has ever seen but who attack the village.
This really is a thoroughly original work. Nature, the customs, rituals and behaviour of the villagers and their enemies are like nothing in the real world but are beautifully if often frighteningly portrayed. Rodoreda was somewhat obsessed with this book and she clearly put a lot into it.
Rodoreda wrote this book at the same time as she was writing La plaça del Diamant (UK: The Pigeon Girl; US: The Time of the Doves). However, she never really finished it and it was only published after her death. Given that at least part of its intent is to damn totalitarian rule, it is easy to see why it was not published in her lifetime. It definitely confirms her as one of the foremost Catalan and, indeed, Spanish writers.
First published 1986 by El Club Editor
First English translation 2009 by Open Letter
Translated by Martha Tennent