click to enlarge
Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent
Available May 26
Reading Death in Spring
, Merce Rodoreda's final novel, is like looking at a Salvador Dali painting. Even if you aren't sure what it means, it defies expectation and is both beautiful and mysterious.
Rodoreda was born in 1908 and lived through the widely hated regime of fascist dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco. For more than two decades she remained in exile, working as a seamstress in France and Switzerland and writing on the side. Death in Spring
was composed over 20 years; it was first published in Spain in 1986, three year's after Rodoreda's death.
On the surface, the book tells the story of an unnamed male adolescent who lives in an unnamed rural village. Like most 14-year-olds, he is struggling to make sense of the whys and wherefores of his bizarre community. Time and again he's confounded. Why, for example, are all of the houses painted pink and why are they repainted the same shade year after year? Why is a man sacrificed each spring, forced to swim in a rough, rock-strewn sea that batters him to death? Why is a prisoner locked in a tiny cage in the town center for the villagers to taunt and abuse? And why did his now deceased but once-beautiful mother scream and wail outside the bedroom window of the newly married?
As the protagonist attempts to make sense of the senseless, multiple themes emerge, from the seeding of resistance to the human tendency to follow age-old traditions. But nothing is explicit.
In fact, this elegant and highly descriptive novel can be read on multiple levels. First, there is the straightforward story of conformity and acquiescence to social mores that defy logic. While the scenarios presented in Death in Spring
are undeniably odd, it's a typical coming-of-age tale, chronicling the process by which each individual determines which rules to follow and which to eschew.
At the same time, Rodoreda seems to be denouncing rigid religious dogma and ritualized violence. In dozens of short chapters she presents the obscene realities of everyday life. It's often horrific. People are repeatedly weighted down; those wishing to die are literally filled with cement and ultimately suffocated. What's more, the townspeople have elevated order to the level of sacrament and the populous does everything it can to maintain the status quo. Not surprisingly, stoicism is prized and even the youngest child is taught to avoid emotional outbursts. For this community, continuing traditions that have been passed from generation to generation is the be-all and end-all.
Yet the story also includes numerous acts of resistance, some large, others small. Most are personal, tiny actions known only to those who do them. Still, rebellion has a cathartic effect making it clear that change is possible, perhaps even inevitable, if one takes the long view.
Or does it? It's difficult to know if Rodoreda believed in political activism to promote cultural shifts or if she saw death as the ultimate freedom. The novel can simultaneously be read as a meditation on our ephemeral existence and as a political tract steering the reader from blind obedience.
But however it's read, Death in Spring
is evocative and creepy, and readers are sure to find it compelling, dramatic, unsettling and strange.