Fiction, Reviews

Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda (1986)

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image: goodreads.com

I adored Rodoreda’s novel A Broken Mirror (my review here) and so when I saw that Penguin had brought out a new edition of her novel Death in Spring, I had to get myself a copy. And what a beautiful cover!

Ostensibly the novel tells the coming-of-age story of a teenage boy in a small Spanish village, but, of course, it is so much more than that. Our unnamed narrator takes us on a weaving and sometimes surreal journey through this period in his life. We learn that his village is remote, somewhat cut off from the rest of the world, and full of its own strange, unique traditions. Many of these are ritualistic and cruel, such as blindfolding pregnant women so that they don’t fall in love with other men, and pouring cement into people’s mouths as they die, so that their souls do not escape. There is also the oddity of ‘Senyor’, a man who lives above the village on a mountain, looking out over the people. He is a remote figure both literally and figuratively, and seems like some sort of de facto leader, though in name only. Like many characters in the village, he seems to wield some sort of power, but it is not clear where this power comes from.

Power seems to be a key theme in this novel. The husbands have power over their pregnant wives, blindfolding them and making them totally dependent and isolated. The blacksmith seems to have some sort of power and authority over the whole village, and often leads the people in their group actions. I thought that the traditions in the village seem to have the most power over the people, these unwritten rules that everyone has to obey. At one point our narrator and his stepmother rebel and prevent the people from following the tradition of house-painting each year by destroying the source of the paint, and the brushes. This is a deeply symbolic action and you can feel their delight in undermining the rigidity of the routine, in their own small way. It doesn’t matter that more paint and brushes are made, and the houses are painted. They made their small act of defiance.

Somehow, the village is built with a river flowing underneath it. The novel opens with the narrator swimming in the river, and it remains as a powerful symbol throughout. Each year a man is selected to swim under the village, to check its integrity, and many are wounded or killed in this endeavour, and become ‘the faceless men’ who seem to roam around in one big group, terrifying the people. It is as if the village and its people are killing or wounding these men in order to prove their strength and preserve themselves. The possibility of the village sinking into the river also adds a permanent sense of fragility and volatility, that the people seem to feel. While the village is held together by its traditions, it feels as if the slightest imbalance could destroy everything.

In Colm Tóibín’s introduction to the new Penguin edition, he highlights the fact that Death in Spring has sometimes been seen as a metaphor for life under the Franco dictatorship in Spain in the mid twentieth century. Even without knowing much about this particular history, the parallels with a dictatorship are clear in the way the village operates, and the authority of the rules and their enforcers like the blacksmith. I also considered Senyor in this context as a remote leader, almost nameless, but still a symbol of power. And our narrator is clearly an agitator, questioning the meaning of things and pushing against the restrictions. There is quite a lot of philosophising on the part of the narrator, but also from other characters he engages with, such as the blacksmith’s son, and the mysterious prisoner, kept in a cage as an example to others. These characters question the validity of the rules of the village and the rules of life, morals, traditions, and why they should act as others do. At times it becomes a bit too sweeping, but you can see what Rodoreda is trying to do – to get her readers to realise the value of questioning the norm, and the danger of just going along with things.

After having read A Broken Mirror, which is a family saga, I have to say that Death in Spring was not quite what I was expecting. It is intense and surreal, and at times hard to follow. A lot of it has a dreamlike quality that makes it seem like a fairy tale – but not a happy one. There are shades of magical realism in the way that the villagers engage with birth and death, and their connections to nature and the landscape. At several points I wondered whether events the narrator described were literal or figurative, or just imagined.

Death in Spring is not the easiest novel to get along with, depending on what you are used to, but I loved the language and imagery, and the explorations of what it means to have a family and a home, to belong somewhere or to someone. It is a short but very rich novel that I think could divide opinion from readers. I was intrigued and pleasantly surprised, and I will certainly be seeking out more of Rodoreda’s work.

*

Originally published in 1986. I read the 2018 Penguin/Viking edition, pictured above.

 

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