—Men who are eager to kill are already dead. (pg. 99)
To distill Mercé Rodoreda’s Death in Spring into an essay is not so much difficult, but it quickly takes the magic from this brief yet symbolically complex novel. Set in a mythical village where the laws of nature mostly work as expected and the inhabitants live in a partly Christian, partly fascistic world, Death in Spring is part allegory, part fantasy, a novel whose preoccupations (as the title suggest) are death, but which take place amongst the rich imagery of the living world. It is as if she trying to create an escape from what is to come in the village, with the inhabitants. This is not a novel that sees “Nature, Bloody in Tooth and Claw,” but a flight to its refuge, because the alternative is so disturbing.
Composed of a series of short, enigmatic chapters narrated by a villager, the novel follows the course of the narrator’s life in the village from youth to death. The events he narrates are not singular, but repetitive, ritualistic, and without beginning and end. This is not a novel of they did, the singular, but they would do, the repetitive. The sense of the repetitive is what makes the novel haunting, because there is no leaving the village. And the narrator wants to leave, not because of one threat in particular but the constant sense of threat.
To understand what makes the village different, all one has to know is how they bury the dead. Instead of burial or cremation, a tree is cut open in the shape of a cross and the bark is pulled away. The dead (or nearly dead) person is placed in the tree and is covered over with the bark again. Later, when the person has spent some time there they put cement down the mouth to keep the soul in. The burials are not necessarily by choice, either. Instead, the function as one of many violent rituals that keeps the village eating itself with violence.
In the village, too, is a prisoner. Why there is a prisoner isn’t explained, but he is an object of ridicule and curiosity and when finally released he is unwilling to move from where his cage once was. Its as if the cycle of violence and control becomes so natural that even a prisoner who might want to be free, is uninterested in freedom.
Amongst the culture of communal control, Rodoreda creates a mythology from the natural world: bees that are at once free, yet are scavengers too; a river that runs under the village, not only giving life to the village but also giving it another means to violence. All of these images create a sense of an Eden that is not quite Eden. It is that sense of beauty just out of reach that makes the novel so arresting. One particularly gruesome practice will illustrate how the book mixes all these elements together.
I wanted to see the Festa, so I went. The villagers had gathered near the river, on the esplanade by the canes that whistled because it was windy. Tables and benches had been built from tree trunks. The horse hoof soup was already boiling in large cauldrons, and standing beside each pot was a woman who was removing scum with a ladle and throwing fat and lumps of cooled blood on the ground. For a funeral Festa, they killed horses and pregnant mares. First, they ate the soup, then the horse or mare, and then a morsel-but only a small piece because there wasn’t much to go around-of the little ones the mares were carrying inside them. They made a paste with the brains; it helped digestion. They peeled them, boiled them in a pot used only for brains, cleaned them, and then chopped them to bits.
The novel could easily seen as an allegory of post civil war Spain. Between the mix of conformity and quasi-religious practices that celebrate violence all marks of Franco’s Spain. The novel, too, can be a more generalized allegory of violence and conformity. With either read, the novel with its clear images, sparse narration, and fantastical landscapes is clearly a brilliant novel of a great story teller.