Death in Spring
What does it mean to be the greatest writer in a language that has about as many speakers as New York City has inhabitants? And what does it mean to write in that language while in exile in a foreign country? In a letter to a friend, Mercè Rodoreda wrote that: “Writing in Catalan in a foreign country is like wanting flowers to bloom in the North Pole.” Though Death in Spring was written long after Rodoreda returned from exile—and not published until after her death in 1986—her comparison perfectly captures the haunting feeling of this book, a book saturated with uncanniness, and with unheimlich, the literal “not at home.”
In English for the first time in Martha Tennent’s translation, Death in Spring is about a society that finds highly elaborate ways to elude the inevitable and to conquer time. Its means are slow and insidious, ritualistic and bizarre, always teetering on the line between the real and the magical. Its members, obsessed with imprisoning themselves, pour concrete into the mouths of the dead to keep their souls from escaping. Every spring, they paint the houses pink and it’s unclear whether anyone remembers why. Though the novel is propelled forward by a linear narrative, it is its characters’ evasion of this diachrony that is most captivating. The book is driven by linguistic and thematic repetition, like a prose sestina in which the end words could be symbols or simply icons, aesthetic trends or markers that unfold and elaborate the path of the narrative. We see wisteria and bees, horses and butterflies, souls and prisoners weave in and out of the text, each time reappearing with a new relevance, a new level of meaning.
Rodoreda infuses surreal elements into her novel in a similar fashion to her Spanish-language, magical-realist counterparts, using the fantastic to draw out the strangeness of quotidian reality, but perhaps due to its brevity (Death in Spring comes in at only 150 pages) the magical seems far more saturated than in, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and serves to further the sense that the story takes place in a world impossibly close to but distinctly alien from ours. There are few clues to situate the story temporally or culturally, which allows it to be read as an allegory for Rodoreda’s particular political moment, a reflection on exile in which the reader is the exiled forced to navigate through the heavy strangeness of an unfamiliar world, or an exploration of human universals (if such things exist) made alien through beautifully disorienting prose and withheld information.
The story begins when the unnamed narrator is a teenager, acting as an ambassador between his own strange world and the reader’s. He describes some of their rituals in detail:
In front of me lay the forest, where the elderly went from time to time, and when they did, they locked us children inside wooden cupboards in the kitchen. We could only breathe through the stars on the cupboard walls, empty stars, like windows in the shape of a star. Once I asked a boy from the nearby house if he was sometimes locked inside the kitchen cupboard, and he said he was…He said he watched through the star as the elderly people set off, and after that he could see only walls and ashes. Everything conveyed a sense of loneliness and sadness.”
He leads the story through adulthood, through his own romance and through tumult in the town. But it is as if he in part remains a child, always peering out of the kitchen cupboard, trying to simultaneously understand his world and break free from its limits, trying to counter the darkness and static of a world possessed by fear of death with lightness and the inevitability of flow:
Everyone bears their own prison, nothing changes, only habits, from listening so long to the coursing river, and from seeing so much water drift past…Man lives between earth and air, is made of water, and lives imprisoned like the river that has earth beneath it and air above.”
And as the story flows, the narrator tries to situate himself between earth and air, finding it to be often difficult and painful, but not without moments of something tending towards the sublime: “The sky was like that night, only now the butterflies had not yet been born.”
Reviewed by Hannah Manshel
Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda
Open Letter Books, 2009.
Cloth, 150 pp., $14.95
Posted in Reviews