Saturday, February 14, 2009

Death in Spring (A Review)

Death in Spring
By Mercè Rodoreda
Translated by Martha Tennent
Open Letter Press
150 pages
May 26, 2009

He would say, in order to survive, you have to live as if you are dead.

Widely considered the most important Catalan author of the post-war period, Mercè Rodoreda (1909-1983) wrote her most important works in exile during Francisco Franco's reign as dictator of Spain and heavy-handed censor of culture. Married at age 20 to an uncle seventeen years her senior, Rodoreda began her career as a novelist in the early 1930s with the publication of Sóc una dona honrada? (Am I a Decent Woman?), which precipitated her transformation into a fashionable and daring woman who went on to pen political articles for Catalan newspapers. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, however, forced Rodoreda to flee to France and later Switzerland. She would later state that "Writing in Catalan in a foreign country is like wanting flowers to bloom at the North Pole." Still, despite the difficulties of writing abroad in a small regional language, Rodoreda's seminal work La mort i la primavera (Death in Spring) probably could not have come together without its author's experiences living in foreign lands.

It has been said that Rodoreda's novels and short stories often contain "an extraordinary assortment of exiles, soldiers, and unprotected people who find expression in a no-man's-land." It is a sort of bittersweet freedom that is at its most contradictory in Death in Spring, first published posthumously in 1986 and only just now appearing in English. On the one hand, its vague, otherworldly setting is a remote village reminiscent of the isolated dystopia depicted in Lois Lowry's The Giver, while the grotesque behavior of its people recalls Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." At the same time, however, the social outsiders Death in Spring centers on possess an autonomy and insight denied to the conformists surrounding them. Although the publisher's summary describes the narrator as a fourteen-year-old boy, he actually ages at least four years throughout the story, and this progression in age is accompanied by a deeper, more profound psychological maturity.

The first quarter of Death in Spring is far more frightening than most conventional horror novels. It is surreal and so deeply disturbing that reading it became uncomfortable despite Rodoreda's lyrical prose. There is talk of men without faces because they were thrown into the underground river and ominous references to "the prisoner." The narrator witnesses his neighbors pour cement down his father's throat and then wall him into a hollowed-out tree. The reader soon learns that these are merely typical community rituals and everyone expects their life to end in this same manner. Both the novella's unspecified setting and the villagers' outlandish behavior lend an aura of timelessness to the story, and it is this sense of Time as an undying circle, forever flowing like the town's river, that becomes one Rodoreda's central themes.
She told me she knew many things: far away the river was flowing; the dead were asleep; trees that held a dead person likewise died a bit; cement inside a dead person took a long time to dry. She said we knew many things about the light, about everything that transpires as it goes round, returning to us – neither too fast nor too slowly, like our shadows on the sundial hours. The same, always the same, no beginning, no ending, never tiring.
I was actually reminded of my favorite poem, T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," in which the primary speaker's voice comes from beyond the grave yet still echoes through the post-war detritus as he "pass[es] the stages of his age and youth / Entering the whirlpool." Rodoreda's unnamed narrator, however, is oddly detached, even as he describes events of great emotional significance. In short, I had long suspected what was going to happen in the end, even before a desire to break the proverbial cycle slowly became apparent.

As the protagonist plays with his wild teenaged stepmother and converses with the prisoner, he becomes increasingly aware of the constraints he lives under, as well as the subliminal methods of control exercised by the society in which he lives. Along with his four-year-old daughter (the stepmother later became the wife), he also becomes acquainted with the son of the blacksmith. The latter is a man with considerable authority who nevertheless starved and imprisoned his child so that he would be too weak to be thrown into the river. (Similarly, in "The Lottery," Tessie has always accepted the lottery and never objected to it until her name was chosen.) Although his father's ritual murder is what initially sparked the narrator's disillusionment, he does not begin to articulate his feelings until later, as events reveal that history has begun to repeat itself. If the world is too entrenched for us to bear, if the people around us are trapped lock-step in meaningless and dysfunctional customs, there still remains one thing in life we can choose for ourselves. "Man is made of water, lives with earth and air," says the prisoner. "He lives imprisoned. All men." So what is one of the few methods of protest left to the powerless?

Death is Spring is certainly a haunting and thought-provoking book, but it is not without its flaws. Told in the first person, it is strongly psychological and full of rambling stream-of-conscious internal monologues. Unfortunately, these frequently slow the story down in the second half of the novella and it often feels like Rodoreda is babbling on about nothing. I really wonder if an editor could have helped her cut some of it down, especially since Death in Spring is also one of those stories where everything is a symbol for something else and the reader never knows when, to borrow the words of Freud, "a cigar is only a cigar." You're either overanalyzing it or not looking deeply enough and it's hard to tell which. Reading can subsequently feel like a chore. The jacket copy also praises Rodoreda's "stunningly poetic language and lush descriptions," which I thought was overblown. Her writing is indeed quite impressive: smoothly flowing, occasionally musical, and highly effective at creating mood. Still, I felt a bit let-down – I don't think she was quite that good, though we must also keep in mind that this is a translation.

Despite these criticisms, I still feel that Death in Spring is a book worth reading, but not for pleasure under an umbrella at the beach. At 150 pages, it is very short, but definitely not quick. Its meandering passages demand serious thought and concentration. In fact, I believe that this is one of those books which must be read twice. Readers seeking something challenging should find Death in Spring satisfying, particularly for its unique portrayal of an oppressive society (I think North Korea is perhaps its closest real-life counterpart), as well as its status as a modern European classic. But The Giver and "The Lottery" are far more readable and share many of the same themes.

Now I know, now that my life has come full circle, like a glass ball on the verge of shattering.


Anonymous said...

I finally got around to reading this review! Thanks for it. I agree that at times the book was difficult - all the imagery got somewhat overwhelming, and I found my mind drifting about. That almost seemed appropriate though. There was something dream-like about the book for me. I did think it was a tad odd how the character of the boy seemed to float at a distance from everything around him, never really engaging. And when he did do things - like letting the kids out of the cupboards - it was mentioned so vaguely that he still didn't seem engaged. Weird. Fascinating book though.

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