Death in Spring

Death in Spring is not my first exposure to Merce Rodoreda’s work, but neither her Spanish Civil War novel, In Diamond Square, nor the wider historical sweep of A Broken Mirror, had prepared me for the intense otherness of this late novel, published posthumously in 1986 (here in a translation by Martha Tennent originally published in the US in 2009). On the opening page its adolescent narrator lowers himself into a river, a descent into cold water which mirrored my own feelings as I read. A few pages later he tells of the cave from which the villagers gather a red fungus to mix with water and paint their houses pink:

“We lowered ourselves into the damp, black well; it was streaked with veins that would glisten in the sun, then slowly extinguish as we moved deeper, and darkness fell, swallowing everything. Through the well we entered the cave, which was like the mouth of the infirm: red and damp.”

This reverse birth, which the narrator will later undertake with his stepmother, similarly foreshadows something of the emotional experience of the reader. The insidious idyll of the opening gives little indication of the disconcerting glimpses of village life which Rodoreda will drip-feed into the pages which follow. The picturesque pink of the houses will quickly come to suggest blood-washed walls, just like the ivy on the Senyor’s house “that on late afternoons looked like a wave of blood.” Every year the ivy is beaten from the walls, part of the destructive cycle of village life which includes sending a man through the river which runs under the village in fear that one day it will be washed away:

“…every year a man entered the water on the upper side and came out on the lower side. Sometimes dead. Sometimes without a face because it had been ripped away when the desperate water hurled him against the rocks which supported the village.”

Rodoreda’s village exists on the debatable land between everyday life and nightmare. The villagers believe that the soul leaves the body at the point of death and therefore fill the mouths of the dying with cement. Their bodies are then entombed in the hollowed trunk of a tree. The narrator witnesses his father opening up a tree and then walking backwards into it before sealing himself in: presumably an attempt to avoid having cement poured down his throat. When the villager discover this they pull him from the trunk:

“He was still alive, but only his own death kept him alive. They dragged him from the tree, laid him on the ground, and began beating him. The last blows made no sound. Don’t kill him, shouted the cement man.”

Later, the Senyor, a figure of distant aristocracy, will also attempt to resist the cement ceremony, suggesting perhaps, that the old life cannot carry on unchallenged and unchanged, while brutally demonstrating the futility of rebellion. And yet, despite this, I immediately recollected the villages of Jean Giono’s early novels. The customs may seem unearthly, but Rodoreda embellishes them with a vibrant natural landscape, and the villagers’ behaviour – pettiness, vindictiveness, suspicion – is all too recognisable.

The novel’s second part focuses on the developing relationship between the narrator and his stepmother, who is only a few years older. Rodoreda deftly paints a picture of their tenderness:

“She told me her feet were cold and asked if I wanted to warm them. I don’t know how she was sitting, but she put her feet in my lap and I took hold of them. They were freezing and, as I held them, I must have fallen asleep.”

The relationship is disapproved of by the village – the village children pelt them with stones – and they take to sleeping in the cave where the red dust is found. Throwing the dust in the river is the first of a number of rebellious acts they undertake: hiding the paintbrushes used to paint the houses and removing bones from the trees. But if this section ends optimistically with the birth of a daughter, its brief moment of hope is not in keeping with the novel as a whole – as Orson Wells said, a happy ending depends on where you stop your story.

The novel’s atmosphere, where fable wrestles with an earthy realism, reminded me of Ivan Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, and it is difficult not to speculate that Repila may have been influenced by his predecessor. It is not only the preponderance of wells and human cruelty which unite the novels, Death in Spring also features a caged prisoner whose message is echoed in the later novel:

“Man is made of water lives with earth and air. He lives imprisoned. All men. …they all said he was a prisoner, but he wasn’t a prisoner, he said, he lived differently from others, only that.”

Where Repila’s work is anguished anger, however, Rodoreda is closer to despair.

Death in Spring is an auspicious start to Penguin’s European Writers series – a truly vital work, the vision of a great artist, to be embraced.

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17 Responses to “Death in Spring”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    I have a lovely hard cover edition of this from Open Letter, but I did know that it is a more intense surreal read, as was War, So Much War to a lesser degree. I want to read In the Time of the Doves, an earlier novel and save this one a little longer. But with all the attention its getting now with this UK release, I may just succumb to temptation!

    • 1streading Says:

      I’ve read In the Time of the Doves (or In Diamond Square as it is here) – a great novel but very different. Luckily I also have War waiting to be read next!

      • roughghosts Says:

        When an author you like has only a limited amount of work available, it’s always nice to know you have something to look forward to.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    The use of imagery sounds particularly effective here, as highlighted by your comments on the opening sections.

    I love the design of the Penguin edition too – it’s stylish, striking and very beautiful. Do know you which other writers they’re planning to feature as part of this series?

    • 1streading Says:

      I also think the design is great. Other authors announced so far are Cesare Pavese, Violette Leduc and Heinrich Boll. It looked like they were roughly bi-monthly but the fourth one isn’t coming out until the end of January 2019 now.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hell of a cover. This sounds remarkable. What’s the point of the cement ceremony? And how do they get people to agree to going through the river given the prospects for maiming and death?

    • 1streading Says:

      The cement (administered just before death ) is to stop the soul escaping. The villagers go along with it as a result of tradition, superstition and coercion in various proportions depending on the individual.

      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        I got that bit, I just wondered why you’d want to stop the soul escaping. If I believed in a soul I think I’d be rather keen on it escaping at death.

        Although clearly the father is rather keen on that which does make sense. I was just curious why the villagers generally weren’t.

        Anyway, I plan to pick this up so I’ll find out 🙂

  4. Lisa Hill Says:

    I’ve just read this, so I enjoyed reading your review which emphasises slightly different things—though we both quoted the prisoner!
    Re the cement: I didn’t mention this in my review but I take it as a comment on censorship, stopping up the mouth to prevent any deathbed revelations under Franco’s rule.

  5. Lisa Hill Says:

    PS I much prefer the Open Letter cover.

  6. Death in Spring, by Mercé Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennent | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog Says:

    […] reviewed it too.  and so did Grant at 1st reading. For a discussion of metaphysical aspects of the novella, see Hugh Ferrer’s review at Words […]

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