Thursday, August 27, 2009

Death in Spring

by Mercè Rodoreda

The first English translation of a novel by a Catalan author, Death in Spring had me really excited. In addition to the exoticism of Catalonia, the review I read made it sound pleasingly strange: an isolated village where people cling to bizarre customs and rituals without any longer understanding their origins or purposes — perhaps an allegory of the Franco regime's attempt to smother cultural diversity. (See also "Basques" and Picasso's Guernica.)

I haven't done a thorough search, but it's not immediately apparent when this book was written. The author lived from 1908 to 1983, and she published as early as the '30s and then in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. This title, however, was published posthumously, so I'm not really sure where to place it in relation to the historical development of magical realism.

And why, you ask, would I want to do that? The first section of the book is lush and poetic, the wondrous world through the eyes of a young narrator. I fell for the beautiful prose right away, and initially resisted the magical realism label, attributing the fabulousness (as in fables, not bling) to the child's-eye view. (Also, I wanted it to be more than just another Hispanophone-ish iteration of magical realism.) So when the narrator's father slices open a tree, peels back the bark, and allows the tree to swallow him alive, I still thought maybe it's just a kid's imagination. But then, when a village of adults not only believes this tale without hesitation but also re-opens the tree so they can pour rose-colored cement into the man's mouth to prevent his soul from escaping, I pretty much had to admit there's some magical realism going on.

As the book progresses through its four sections, the story becomes increasingly bleak and surreal, and eventually all but inscrutable. Ultimately, it's a story about death, about dying inside and still living, the killing of desire, the desire to be free from desire, the simple brutality of existence, of other people, of "saving" other people by killing their desires, the death of individuality, the death of hope.

When I'd only read the first section, I enthusiastically recommended the book to several people, but now I kinda wish I hadn't. I don't see it appealing to the ordinary recreational reader, but maybe if you're especially interested in the region or the genre, or if you extract a twisted pleasure from existentialist agitation.

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