Sunday, December 23, 2012

On The Stories Of Mercè Rodoreda

My Sunday Guardian column

Blurbs are often overblown; yet, when they’re by the right person and say the right things, they can be remarkably persuasive. Thus it was that on the last evening of a recent trip, I found myself handing over scarce foreign exchange for a translation of selected stories by Catalan author Mercè Rodoreda -- of whom, as the cover proclaimed, Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that she’s a writer “who still  knows how to name things”.

As I was subsequently to learn, it’s Rodoreda’s novels that are the full-blown expression of her craft and art. The stories, however, are the perfect introduction, containing all the expressive experiments with tone that mark her longer work.

Despite being championed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, Rodoreda’s work never became as well-known as theirs in the English-speaking world. In her homeland, however, she’s feted as one of their most important writers, a Member of Honour of the Association of Catalan Language Writers, with a library and a respected annual literary prize named after her.

‘Blood’; ‘Happiness’; ‘Summer’; ‘Departure’; ‘Love’: the titles of her stories are simple, but the exposition – in the English translation by Martha Tennent – is rich and rewarding. Most of the central characters are women, depicted as see-sawing between traditional and modern roles. One of them, for example, is described as “a girl without troubles, without agitation, a girl unaware that she was tyrannically imprisoned within four walls and a ceiling of tenderness.” Elsewhere, a young wife suspects her husband of infidelity, a suspicion that grows to consume their relationship; a seamstress, alarmed by the depth of her feeling, waits for her rich relative to die so she can set up shop on her own; a young couple bumps into each other during the festa and forms a strange attachment. Often, these are people afflicted by a quiet grief, with desires unfulfilled, looking into mirrors to notice the wrinkles that have robbed them of youth.

Some of the early stories are no more than fragments, with people walking through Barcelona’s streets and inhabiting its cafes, workplaces and cinema halls -- yet they possess a quality of melancholy and impressionism that characterize her later work. They’re also grounded by precise observation, such as the description in one of the stories of the slaughter of hens in a poultry market.

These are tales of sudden infatuations and estrangements – vivid and short-lived, like the ephemeral flowers she mentions time and again -- where the need to make a living is at odds with the desire to live a life. At times, their emotional depth puts one in mind of work such as Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights or Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

It’s the later stories that are more fleshed out, with an almost nightmarish stream-of-consciousness that her novels are known for. Rodoreda’s own years in Paris and Geneva as a Spanish Civil War exile, and living through the world war, find expression here. The effect of looking upon the ugly face of conflict is evident in ‘Orleans, Three Kilometers’ and ‘On A Dark Night’, for example. In ‘The Fate of Lisa Sperling’, she also tries out techniques such as a deft switching from third person to first person within the same paragraph. Many times, the mood is undercut by a weary cynicism, such as when she writes: “If all of us here could return to the womb, half would be trampled to death by those who fight to get in first”.

Of The Time of Doves, one of Rodoreda’s most famous novels, Natasha Wimmer -- best-known for her translations of Roberto Bolaño's work -- has written that she “plumbs a sadness that reaches beyond historic circumstances, a sadness born of helplessness, an almost voluptuous vulnerability”. A new translation of the novel by Peter Bush, this time titled In Diamond Square, is forthcoming in March next year: another opportunity for Rododera to gain the international readership she deserves.

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