War, So Much War By Merce Rodoreda – A Review

War, So Much War
Merce Rodoreda
Open Letter, 2015, pg 185

war_so_much_war-front_largeMerce Rodoreda’s late works are magical miniatures of madness, destruction, and authoritarianism. Much like a Death in Spring, War, So Much War creates a condensed claustrophobic world where the inhabitants are given to a petty violence that is rooted  in jealousy as much as it is custom. Its a dark novel and Rodereda paints war time Catalonia in a less than flattering light. Published in 1980, several years after the end of the Franco regime, it is both a criticism of the events and an act of witness. War, So Much War is not a novel of the righteous lost cause or a golden era. It is a vision of cruelty for cruelty’s sake. She wrote in Death in Spring, “men who are eager to kill are already dead,” and it is an apt description of the characters in War, So Much War. No one wins here.

Structurally, and much like Death in Spring, the narrative is a kind of picaresque and the reality feels as if it is part of a fable as much as it is a description of a given reality. From the few details she teases us with the war is taking place in Catalonia. There is one mention of Barcelona, which is the main link. The only reference to the Spanish Civil War is when she mentions Moroccan troops, which were employed by the fascist side. (It is possible there are more clues in the original Catalan that a Catalan would pickup on.) Other than these small clues, the book is isolated, cut off from any larger world, giving a sense of madness to every remote location the narrator ventures. While Death in Spring had its own unique and terrifying reality, War uses what should seem familiar, farms, fishing communities, and imbues them with terror and violence. Its as if the war is not a singular event, but a reflection of what the normal order.

The start of War, So Much War shows just what Rodoreda thinks of war and soldiers. The protagonist, Adria Guinart, runs away from home with several other boys and join a the army. Militia might be a better term since it is a woefully inadequate group. They are sent into battle and are immediately routed. They flee into the woods where Guinart finds himself on a journey through the war ravaged land. He stumbles on farmers who try to kill him, others who want to make him into a slave. Occasionally, he meets a good person, a farmers daughter who wants to make love to him, a hermit who wants company, and the wounds he receives at the hands of the violent heal before circumstance sends him on his way. In one of the longer sections of the book, he takes up with a man who lives alone by the sea. The relationship is one of trust and when the man dies, he gives everything to Guinart. He lives in the house for a while and he has a chance to examine what it is he is searching for. The moment allows Guinart to become more than a cork floating on the sea as he is in much of the novel and shows that Rodoreda is looking for something more than just a caustic criticism of war.

Ultimately, War, So Much War is a dark book. At times I wonder if there was an urban versus rural dynamic, not just a vision of war. Much of what happens has nothing specifically to do with war. Is the world she has created a result of a war, or war is the result of such a society? Either way, Rodoreda’s late works are magical, brutal, and richly evocative.

My Article on Four UnTranslated Short Stories Is Up at the Quarterly Conversation

My article about four untranslated Spanish short story writers is now up at the Quarterly Conversation. It turned out really well and is a much longer form article than I normally write coming in at a little over 3K words. While I think the stories mentioned in the article are great I had to leave out so many different ones that it seems at times I haven’t written that much. Writing about short stories is always hard because you end up with some many different ones and you have to try come up with some sort of thematic element to link them together. This was esspecially the case with these four, but I think I was able to do it.

Collections of short stories are generally considered difficult to market, and thus they’re often looked down upon by editors who acquire new works of literature in the United States. This fact is no less true when it comes to editors who acquire works of foreign literature translated into English, an already notably under-represented group. To make matters worse, what stories that do get translated are often lumped into anthologies of what you might call stories from over there, which obscure the full range of an author’s talent beneath the idea that one story is a representative sample.

This is all very important in the case of Spanish literature, which in recent decades has seen a rebirth of the possibilities of the short story. For authors of what’s called the New Spanish Short Story, this tendency has hidden a great burst of creativity that began in the early 1980s and flowered during the 1990s and 2000s (the few stories that have been translated have been relegated to obscure editions unavailable in the United States). From the stories of the fantastic by Cristina Fernádez Cubas to the structural inventions of Hipólito G. Navarro and the surrealism of Ángel Zapata, Spanish short story writers have created an exciting and diverse body of work marked by its openness and dedication to pushing the boundaries of the form.

I  have also commented on other stories from Navarro and Cubas. The rest of the Quarterly Conversation looks very good, too, and definately worth reading. They have a nicely timed overview of the works of Mercè Rodoreda. (You my reviews of Death in Spring and her short stories)

My Review of The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda up at Asymptote Journal

My review of The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda has been published by Asymptote Journal. I liked the stories quite a bit. I’ll let my review speak for itself:

The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda are a fascinating mix of personal disappointment and the darkly allegorical, stories that capture the precise moment when longing becomes futile and self-destructive. Living through a troubled romance in her early years then later fleeing into exile and poverty at the end of the Spanish Civil War, Rodereda’s work reflects those turbulent moments and the disillusion that stems from them. Her stories
look inward, whether in disappointment with a cheating husband, or through grief, both expressed in rich allegorical language. It is the power to catch these moments, the spark of failure or the last legacy of something good, that makes her a rich story teller.

Spain in a 100 Books, the Women

Earlier I posted about a feature in Letras Libres that listed close to 100 books that helped define Spain in the 20th Century. One of the things you may have noticed is there were scarcely any women writers. Laura Freixas has remedied that situation with her addition of 25 women authors. I have read several and several are in English so it is useful list. You can see some of the books I am acquainted with.

This kind of lopsideness in lists shows up a lot in Spanish speaking critics. A few years ago the list of the top 100 best novels of the last 25 years Spanish had 5-10 books by women. Not a particularly representative sample.

I already know the standard answer of these critics: “We don’t apply qoatas, we only look for quality.” Quality? Acording to who? Since literature isn’t an exact sience, the quality will always be a question of taste ( tastes educated, formed, polite, of course, but in the end tastes), a question, then, subjective. Subjective factors are the ones that influence. That, for example, the Aragonese critic Félix Romeo has mentioned more books from Aragonese authors than his Catalan or Canarian college, seems to me explainable: he has more information about these works, the ones he knows, as such they are closer to him. And I legitimate, on the condition that one does not privilege other circumstances over others…that is what occurred when one only asks opinions of men (I am referring to the four critics consulted in that edition of Letras Libres).

Ya sé cuál es la respuesta estándar ante críticas de ese tipo: “No aplicamos cuotas, sólo atendemos a la calidad”. ¿Calidad? ¿A juicio de quién? Pues no siendo la literatura una ciencia exacta, la calidad siempre será cuestión de gustos (gustos instruidos, formados, educados, desde luego, pero gustos al fin), cuestión, pues, subjetiva. En la que influyen factores subjetivos. Que por ejemplo el crítico aragonés, Félix Romeo, haya mencionado más libros de autores aragoneses que su colega catalán o canario me parece explicable: tiene más información sobre esas obras, las conoce mejor, le resultan más próximas. Y legítimo, a condición de que no se privilegie unas circunstancias sobre otras… que es lo que ocurre cuando sólo se pide opinión a varones (lo eran los cuatro críticos consultados en el número de Letras Libres al que me estoy refiriendo).

The first three are available in English. The last I will be reading in a month or two. The full list is here.

Nada (1945), de Carmen Laforet

Fiesta al noroeste (1953), de Ana María Matute

La plaça del Diamant (1962), de Mercè Rodoreda

Mi hermana Elba (1980), de Cristina Fernández Cubas

Death in Spring – A Review

—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.