Thursday, June 17, 2010

"You have to keep going."

Stones in a Landslide
By Maria Barbal
Translated by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell
126 pages
Peirene Press
June 2010

She does what I am not capable of doing. I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I'll come tumbling down after the others. If nothing comes near, I'll be here, still, for days and days. . .

Maria Barbal, author of eight novels, is widely acclaimed as the most influential living Catalan writer. First published in 1985, her seminal work Pedra de Tartera (Stones in a Landslide) has since gone through fifty editions and sold over 50,000 copies in Germany alone.

Stones in a Landslide covers the complete lifetime of Conxa (short for Concepció) among the isolated farming villages of Catalonia. The book opens at the beginning of the twentieth century, when 13-year-old Conxa was sent to live with her childless aunt and uncle. She eventually marries Jaume, a builder and carpenter whose work takes him away for long stretches of time. Although Conxa remains tied to farm and family, Jaume's travels expose him to new ideas regarding government and citizens' rights which will land him on the wrong side of the Spanish Civil War. But it is his widow who will live with the subsequent tragedy for decades afterward.

There are essentially two distinct narratives here: the chronicle of a traditional rural culture and an emerging story of revolution and modernity which will eventually overtake it. Both strands are personified in the characters of Conxa and Jaume, whose marriage, though happy, comes to represent the difficult union of past and rapidly-changing present. Of the political turmoil that will ultimately consume them, Conxa is uncomprehending.
When we talked about such matters the same thing always happened to me. A thick fog came over my brain and from there it passed to my heart. It left me frozen and in the dark. I was made to know what I saw, to speak about what I felt. I didn't know anything outside of Pallarès or Montsent or Ermita. I'd heard of Barcelona, of the sea, even of Madrid, of the King. It all seemed to me like one of those stories my father used to tell round the fire. I didn't believe all that really existed. I thought it was a trick, like Soledat Estevet having a claim to the throne of England. Perhaps that was why when I saw Jaume's eyes shining as he spoke of these strange things, the ground beneath me moved and I couldn't find true north. Instead of me guiding the animals, it felt like they were leading me. At moments like this, Jaume and I were as different as night and day, and that difference made me tremble more than when he left to go away for a whole week's work.
To Conxa, the female role is the very foundation of agricultural life, and her entire being is consequently bound to the timeless rhythms of planting, harvesting, livestock, and family. She is accustomed, above all, to perpetual labor broken only by the occasional festival. Barbal's prose is the clear and unadorned voice of a woman who may lack sophistication, but not insight and acuity. "No, I didn't say anything to the girls. They needed to move on," Conxa says later. "What happened was a huge blow to them but there was no point in thinking about it. You have to keep going." She had learned long ago that too much depends on her to be paralyzed by death and upheaval.

In the end, however, it is not the war but the inevitable march of progress that threatens to leave Conxa behind. Farming is no longer viable in a world that has come to value novelty, speed, technology, and the city. Although Conxa modestly denies being any real source of history, the story of her life nevertheless reflects the growth of Catalan society - indeed, of many societies - in the twentieth century. And that, I believe, is the main reason Stones in a Landslide enjoys such strong international resonance. There is a universality to Conxa that is beautifully highlighted by Maria Barbal's vivid writing and I can see Stones in a Landslide appealing to a wide variety of readers. Recommended.

Also check out: Mercè Rodoreda's Death in Spring, a Catalan novel set in an otherworldly village with grotesque customs, which may be seen as an allegory for Spain under Franco.

A special thanks to Meike Ziervogel for this review copy.


Amy said...

Great review! I can't wait to read this book. The story of her life sounds fascinating.

Jessica said...

I brought this the other day! Glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

I am glad to hear you enjoyed this as well. I like your observations on how this could be a universal story.

E. L. Fay said...

Glad you all liked my review! It is a great book.

Emily said...

I'm impressed that Barbal is able to address changes over such a length of time in such a short page span. Sometimes I find novellas that attempt such lengthy plots to be spread a bit thin, but it doesn't sound like that was an issue for you with this one? In any case, sounds like a powerful story.

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