Mercè Rodoreda: Mirall trencat (A Broken Mirror)
Though La plaça del Diamant (UK: The Pigeon Girl; US: The Time of the Doves) tends to have the best reputation of Rodoreda’s novels, I think that this one is superior. Family sagas, where the decaying house represents the fortunes of the family, are hardly new – from Edgar Allan Poe‘s Fall of the House of Usher to Daphne DuMaurier‘s Rebecca, with many other examples almost since the beginnings of the novel. These two examples, as well as many others, tend to the Gothic in style. While there is nothing wrong with that, it can at times detract from the story. Rodoreda does not fall into this trap. While undertones of Gothicism cannot be avoided, her novel is a superb literary novel about the rise and decline of a family and its house. The title of the book (the same in Catalan as in English), unlike La plaça del Diamant (UK: The Pigeon Girl; US: The Time of the Doves), shows the technique she uses. The story is told in the third person but always from the perspective of one of the participants, including the ghost of one of the participants and, in the very last chapter, a rat, who ends up dying, a double symbol of the fall of the family. The broken mirror analogy shows how the story is reflected from different perspectives. Though more or less told chronologically, the story does sometimes fill in gaps relating to earlier events.
The matriarch of the family is Teresa Goday. She was the daughter of a fish seller in the market and had an affair with Miquel Masdéu. She became pregnant at which point Miquel tells her that he is married. He loves Teresa but will not leave his wife. Finally, Miquel and his wife adopt the child, Jesús, though, of course, the wife does not know that Miquel is the father. Jesús will appear throughout the book, as Teresa, when she becomes rich, likes to keep in touch with him. It is Jesús that is the head of the group occupying the house during the Civil War and he is the one that, alone, spends the night with the body of Teresa after her death. A rich, old man, Nicolau Rovira is attracted to Teresa and marries her but he soon dies, leaving her a rich widow. Meanwhile we have been following the story of Salvador Valldaura. He is independently wealthy but working as a Spanish diplomat in Vienna. He sees a woman, Barbara, and through a mutual acquaintance gets to know her. They go out together a few times. He is attracted to her, though her incessant talking can, at times, be annoying. One day, for no apparent reason, she kills herself. Valldaura is devastated. On returning to Barcelona he meets Teresa, now a widow. They fall in love and marry.
Valldaura astutely buys a villa in the Sant Gervasi which he picked up cheaply from a marquis who had run up huge debts. This will become their home for the rest of their lives. The rest of the novel follows the story of the family in the house. Salvador and Teresa have a daughter, Sophia, a supercilious girl and woman, whom the servants do not like. Valldaura eventually gives up his career. When Sophia grows up she marries Eladi Fariolls. Eladi’s father runs a successful shop, where Sophia shops. It is suspected, rightly, that he married her for her money. As soon as they are married he tells her that he has a daughter. He had courted Sophia for some time but she has delayed the wedding when her father dies. In the meantime, he carried on his usual activity – of going to cabaret shows and having affairs with the women in the shows. He falls for Pilar, whose speciality is singing in the nude. He sets her up in an apartment and she has a child. Sophia decides that they should adopt the child and Pilar is told that a rich family will pay her money to give up the child to adoption. She is unaware, as far as we know, that the rich family is her now former lover and his wife. Pilar will later die in the poorhouse while her daughter, Maria, enters the Valldaura household, allegedly as the orphan child of a distant cousin. Sophia soon gets pregnant and has a son, Ramón. This will be her last child as Eladi now turns his attentions to the female staff. Maria and Ramón become very close – too close as it turns out. Sophia has another child, Jaume, but he is born prematurely and is a weak and sickly child but full of imagination. Maria and Ramón, who seem to be as obnoxious as Sophia, with a streak of evil not found in Sophia (this is where Rodoreda flirts with the Gothic), are cruel to Jaume and he ends up dying.
As Maria and Ramón grow up, they become even closer and there is a strong suspicion that their relationship is sexual. When they learn that they are brother and sister, which Eladi tells them when one of the servants (his first household lover) tells him of her suspicions, they are both devastated. Ramón leaves the house and only returns many years later, long after Maria has died, probably by suicide. Things are not going well when the Civil War hits. Eladi and Teresa have both died. Sophia decides to leave Spain and goes to Paris, leaving only one of the servants in charge. The house is occupied by the Republican militia. After the war, Sophia, now remarried, returns but wants to knock the house down and turn it into a block of flats.
None of this indicates the sheer brilliance of Rodoreda in describing the family, the relationships, the servants and the changes to them all and to the house. There are pieces of poetical lyricism of unsurpassed imagery and beauty. Teresa, with her two husbands, the father of her child and her lover (her husband’s lawyer), dominates, even after death but all of the other characters, including the servants is each painstakingly drawn with his or her own unique character. As the portrait of a decaying family, and decaying house and, as the final scene with the rat shows, what Rodoreda clearly sees as a decaying era, this remains a superb novel.
First published 1974 by El Club dels Novelòlistes
First English translation by University of Nebraska Press in 2006