Chad Post
on Mercè Rodoreda

June 23rd, 2009 by EVENTS

Aside from the exposure to excellent works of literature from all over the world, the best thing about my work with literature in translation is the editorial trips to Spain, to France, to Estonia, to German, to Argentina—and I’m surprised more people don’t become translators or publishers for this alone. I first heard of Mercè Rodoreda—arguably the most influential Catalan author of the twentieth century—during such an editorial trip to Barcelona a few years back that was organized by the brilliant and hip Ramon Llull Institut and consisted of four days of meetings with editors, publishers, critics, and Catalan authors.

Catalan culture is in a bit of a tricky position. A completely different language from Castilian (what we commonly refer to as “Spanish”), Catalan was strongly discouraged during the Franco regime, and a number of Catalan artists—Rodoreda included—went into exile during this time. After Franco’s death in 1975, there’s been resurgence in interest in the Catalan language and in Catalan culture as a whole. Catalonia—located in the northeast part of Spain, bordering France and including Barcelona—has taken pride in reclaiming its literary and artistic heritage, and promoting its unique society to the rest of the world. On the literary end of things, the selection of Catalonia as the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007 (the first region—in contrast to country—to be honored as such), really helped raise the awareness of Catalan literature among editors, writers, and reviewers around the world.

That said, Quim Monzo’s self-referential opening speech at the book fair (Monzo is another Catalan author I learned about during this trip and that Open Letter will be publishing) is honest to a point of self-deprecation about the worldwide interest in Catalan literature:

Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few.

So where does Mercè Rodoreda fit into all this?

I believe—and this is why we published Death in Spring—that Rodoreda is the great modernist Catalan author. From her earlier works, like Time of the Doves, through her later, even more ambitious and stylistically daring novels, like Death in Spring and A Broken Mirror, she created some of the most impressive literary works of the past century and she wrote the books that people will be reading a hundred years from now, still puzzling out her techniques and, especially in the case of Death in Spring, the meanings behind her words.

Rodoreda’s aesthetic evolution is one of the things that most impresses me about her writing. Time of the Doves is a very accomplished novel—a stream of consciousness novel about one woman’s life during the Spanish Civil War. It is very modernist in its conceits and concerns, and is stunningly beautiful. (I was reminded as much when I had the opportunity to hear Jessica Lange perform an abridged version of the book at the recent Catalan Days in New York.) At the same time, today’s readers probably won’t find too many “new tricks” in this novel.

That’s not necessarily the case with A Broken Mirror and especially not with Death in Spring. A Broken Mirror is a family saga that progresses from a very Victorian opening to a very fragmented and postmodern conclusion. And aesthetically speaking, that’s where Death in Spring picks up.

There isn’t really an English-language equivalent to this masterpiece. A couple scenes call to mind Shirley Jackson, and the spooky atmosphere is sort of Poe-like, but both of those comparisons fall far short of what you’ll find here. This is a novel about an imagined village where life is organized around a series of baroque, almost medieval rituals. These rituals can be rather shocking—like the death ritual of filling a dying person’s mouth with cement to prevent his/her soul from escaping, or all of the routines involving the “prisoner”—but Rodoreda presents them through the eyes of an adolescent boy in such a naturalized, textured, lyrical fashion that the reader quickly comes to accept them as commonplace, or, as metaphors.

When they pulled the boy from the river, he was dead; they returned him to the river. Those who died in the water were returned to the water. The river carried them away and nothing was ever known of them again. But at night, at the spot where the bodies were thrown into the water, a shadow could be seen. Not every night. Not today or tomorrow, but on certain nights a shadow trembled. They said the shadow of the dead returned to the place where the man was born. They said that to die was to merge with the shadow. That summer, the shadow of the boy was clearly distinguishable. It was unmistakably him because he had been separated from one of his arms, and the shadow had but one arm. Struggling against the current, the shadow—which was only will, not body or voice—attempted to slip beneath the village. And as the shadow struggled, the prisoner neighed.

There’s a temptation to interpret this novel about a village ruled by a man living up on a hill as a political metaphor for life in Franco’s Spain, but I think that leads to an incomplete reading. This novel is richer than politics. (And just wait until you read the scene in which the protagonist interacts with the man on the hill! It’s touching, surprising, and almost funny.) The novel also has a strong elemental pull to it, as the four sections bring to mind the four seasons, and these bizarre rituals concerned with passing and renewal. It is Death in Spring after all.

Regardless of how one chooses to approach the book, I’m willing to guarantee that this is a one-of-a-kind experience and we have a translator to thank for that. Martha Tennent, whose translation captures all of Rodoreda’s stylized foreignness in a very readable, beautiful way, deserves a ton of credit for her exquisite rendering of Rodoreda’s words. Finding a truly unique voice is rarer than one might imagine, and it’s that quality that made me want to acquire and publish this book—so that everyone could access its magically strange beauty.

Chad W. Post is the Director of Open Letter Books, a publishing house at the University of Rochester that is dedicated to publishing international literature. He also edits Three Percent, an excellent online resource for literature in translation, and administers the Best Translated Book Award.

Posted in Editors Speak

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