Death in Spring, by Mercé Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennent

Not having left myself much time to read something for Spanish Lit Month at Winston’s Dad, I chose Death in Spring (La mort i la primavera) from the TBR, thinking that at 150 pages I could read it quickly, and that it was a great lead-in to #WITMonth as well. It’s also said to be Mercé Rodoreda’s masterpiece, published posthumously in 1986.  (I’ve previously read her short stories and In Diamond Square.) Alas, Death in Spring turned out to be slow and reluctant reading because it is so violent and grotesque that I could only read it in the daylight hours. The publisher’s description at Open Letter Books didn’t really prepare me for what lay ahead: Considered by many to be the grand achievement of her later period, Death in Spring is one of Mercè Rodoreda’s most complex and beautifully constructed works. The novel tells the story of the bizarre and destructive customs of a nameless town—burying the dead in trees after filling their mouths with cement to prevent their soul from escaping, or sending a man to swim in the river that courses underneath the town to discover if they will be washed away by a flood—through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy who must come to terms with the rhyme and reason of this ritual violence, and with his wild, child-like, and teenaged stepmother, who becomes his playmate. It is through these rituals, and the developing relationships between the boy and the townspeople, that Rodoreda portrays a fully-articulated, though quite disturbing, society. The horrific rituals, however, stand in stark contrast to the novel’s stunningly poetic language and lush descriptions. Written over a period of twenty years—after Rodoreda was forced into exile following the Spanish Civi War—Death in Spring is musical and rhythmic, and truly the work of a writer at the height of her powers. Wikipedia tells us that Mercé Rodoreda (1908-1983) is the most influential contemporary Catalan language writer. Although she lived to see the death of Franco, his fascist government was the catalyst for her to flee Spain and live in exile from 1939-1972.  Hugh Ferrer from the University of Iowa suggests in his review at Words Without Borders that Death in Spring is an address to oppressive, authoritarian government, especially Franco’s, and so it indeed seems.  The harsh, authoritarian blacksmith who rules the village with his despotic, irrational regime commands terror, not respect, but his rule seems impenetrable to change, a permanent blight on the villagers he brutalises. Written in the style of a grisly fairy tale, the novella is narrated by a teenage boy observing the rituals and trying to make sense of things that make no sense.  It begins in the forest where he witnesses his dying father trying to pre-empt the savagery of the ritual that is inflicted on the dying so that their souls cannot escape.  There are moments of some relief when he frolics with his young stepmother—and moments of hope when he conspires with the blacksmith’s son to prevent some of the violence—but these episodes are fraught with tension because of the fear of discovery and its consequences. The blacksmith’s son has been deliberately kept frail so that he cannot participate in the perilous annual ritual prescribed for all the men of the village.  They are required to swim in the river that the village straddles, many of them emerging disfigured by being hurled against the rocks.  Some of them die.  The narrator learns unspoken things from the blacksmith’s son, some of them just part of the superstitious nonsense his father insists on, but he also speaks some truths.  Some terrible things happen only because people believe they will happen. The prisoner, cramped into a cage for the amusement of the villagers, tells the narrator that you had to live pretending to believe everything.   Pretending to believe everything and doing everything others wanted; he’d been imprisoned when he was young because he knew the truth and spoke it.  (p.81) This prisoner now says that after so many years of captivity and abuse, he is no longer a prisoner, and he no longer wants to speak: Nothing mattered to him, living behind bars or no bars.  He was his own prison. (p.81) The narrator is summoned by Senyor, the rich man who lives above the village, to help him evade the prescribed death.  He wants to die with his mouth open, without having cement shoved down it to prevent his soul escaping. Remembering my father in his very old age, I am reminded that it is not death that people fear, it’s the manner of that death. I was also reminded me of those scenes in WW2 films, where the resistance fighter is in the hands of the Nazis, and they choose to use a cyanide capsule to deny their captors control of their death. Senyor thinks that the prisoner is the bravest: The prisoner—he called him the man in the cage—the man in the cage knew me, he was the bravest, forever looking straight in front of him, he’d always say: since you can’t choose the way you live, you sh

Death in Spring, by Mercé Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennent

Not having left myself much time to read something for Spanish Lit Month at Winston’s Dad, I chose Death in Spring (La mort i la primavera) from the TBR, thinking that at 150 pages I could read it quickly, and that it was a great lead-in to #WITMonth as well. It’s also said to be Mercé Rodoreda’s masterpiece, published posthumously in 1986.  (I’ve previously read her short stories and In Diamond Square.)

Alas, Death in Spring turned out to be slow and reluctant reading because it is so violent and grotesque that I could only read it in the daylight hours. The publisher’s description at Open Letter Books didn’t really prepare me for what lay ahead:

Considered by many to be the grand achievement of her later period, Death in Spring is one of Mercè Rodoreda’s most complex and beautifully constructed works. The novel tells the story of the bizarre and destructive customs of a nameless town—burying the dead in trees after filling their mouths with cement to prevent their soul from escaping, or sending a man to swim in the river that courses underneath the town to discover if they will be washed away by a flood—through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy who must come to terms with the rhyme and reason of this ritual violence, and with his wild, child-like, and teenaged stepmother, who becomes his playmate. It is through these rituals, and the developing relationships between the boy and the townspeople, that Rodoreda portrays a fully-articulated, though quite disturbing, society.

The horrific rituals, however, stand in stark contrast to the novel’s stunningly poetic language and lush descriptions. Written over a period of twenty years—after Rodoreda was forced into exile following the Spanish Civi War—Death in Spring is musical and rhythmic, and truly the work of a writer at the height of her powers.

Wikipedia tells us that Mercé Rodoreda (1908-1983) is the most influential contemporary Catalan language writer. Although she lived to see the death of Franco, his fascist government was the catalyst for her to flee Spain and live in exile from 1939-1972.  Hugh Ferrer from the University of Iowa suggests in his review at Words Without Borders that Death in Spring is an address to oppressive, authoritarian government, especially Franco’s, and so it indeed seems.  The harsh, authoritarian blacksmith who rules the village with his despotic, irrational regime commands terror, not respect, but his rule seems impenetrable to change, a permanent blight on the villagers he brutalises.

Written in the style of a grisly fairy tale, the novella is narrated by a teenage boy observing the rituals and trying to make sense of things that make no sense.  It begins in the forest where he witnesses his dying father trying to pre-empt the savagery of the ritual that is inflicted on the dying so that their souls cannot escape.  There are moments of some relief when he frolics with his young stepmother—and moments of hope when he conspires with the blacksmith’s son to prevent some of the violence—but these episodes are fraught with tension because of the fear of discovery and its consequences.

The blacksmith’s son has been deliberately kept frail so that he cannot participate in the perilous annual ritual prescribed for all the men of the village.  They are required to swim in the river that the village straddles, many of them emerging disfigured by being hurled against the rocks.  Some of them die.  The narrator learns unspoken things from the blacksmith’s son, some of them just part of the superstitious nonsense his father insists on, but he also speaks some truths.  Some terrible things happen only because people believe they will happen.

The prisoner, cramped into a cage for the amusement of the villagers, tells the narrator that you had to live pretending to believe everything.  

Pretending to believe everything and doing everything others wanted; he’d been imprisoned when he was young because he knew the truth and spoke it.  (p.81)

This prisoner now says that after so many years of captivity and abuse, he is no longer a prisoner, and he no longer wants to speak:

Nothing mattered to him, living behind bars or no bars.  He was his own prison. (p.81)

The narrator is summoned by Senyor, the rich man who lives above the village, to help him evade the prescribed death.  He wants to die with his mouth open, without having cement shoved down it to prevent his soul escaping.

Remembering my father in his very old age, I am reminded that it is not death that people fear, it’s the manner of that death. I was also reminded me of those scenes in WW2 films, where the resistance fighter is in the hands of the Nazis, and they choose to use a cyanide capsule to deny their captors control of their death.

Senyor thinks that the prisoner is the bravest:

The prisoner—he called him the man in the cage—the man in the cage knew me, he was the bravest, forever looking straight in front of him, he’d always say: since you can’t choose the way you live, you should at least be able to choose the way die… (p.97)

But all Senyor’s wealth, power and prestige is no protection against the will of a population cowed into submission to the blacksmith and perverted into a loss of humanity:

But he had to die like everyone else.  They made him die in the centre of the Plaça.  They wanted to watch him. (p.101)

Senyor’s death is the catalyst for a sense of unease and some indications that the blacksmith’s power could be challenged.  Typical, it seems to me, that society only recognises the need for change when the rich and powerful suffer.  We are finally getting action on climate change only now that big business wants it.

I really feel for the translator Martha Tennent.  Translation involves reading and re-reading a work many times, and this novella would not only be difficult to render into English, but revisiting its catalogue of horrors must also have been a psychological strain.

Stu reviewed it too.  For a discussion of metaphysical aspects of the novella, see Hugh Ferrer’s review at Words without Borders. 

Author: Mercé Rodoreda
Title: Death in Spring (La mort i la primavera)
Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2009, first published posthumously in Catalan in 1986
ISBN: 9781934824115, hbk., 150 pages
Source: personal library