Merce Rodoreda’s “Death in Spring”

Reviewed by Hugh Ferrer

Image of Merce Rodoreda’s “Death in Spring”

For the novel to emerge as a form, it had to lure readers away from the period's main form of prose publication: religious literature. And fiction has been playing with—and crossing—that old fault line ever since. Modernist literature, for example, found a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways (ambiguity, symbolism, etc.) to slant drill into religion's wells, while magical realism seems to have been issued passports by both realms.

The great twentieth-century Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda (1909–1983) is not well known to English-language readers. Her novel La plaça del diamante (1962)—the most acclaimed Catalan novel of all time—appeared in English only in 1980 (as Time of the Dove). Three other translations have followed: the 1966 novel El carrer de les camèlies (Camilia Street, 1993), and two short-story collections, the most recent from University of Nebraska Press in 2006. Yet she remains off the radar for many people (until recently, this reviewer included), so I offer these intersections—of the fictional and the religious, the modernist and the magical realist—as a loose frame of reference and a way of approaching a work regarded as the masterpiece of her later period, the posthumously published novel La mort i la primavera.

Newly translated by Martha Tennant and made available for the first time in English in May 2009 by Open Letter Books, Death in Spring can—and perhaps on one level, must—be read as an address to oppressive, authoritarian government, especially Franco's (Rodoreda spent twenty years in exile), but there is nothing provincial about it. As with Orwell's 1984, Zamyatin's We, or Kerenthy's Metropole, the critique—lifting itself with fantastic elements—transcends any specific target.

And Death in Spring is indeed bursting with fantastic images. Many of the images work to reveal a system of natural symbols that is at once suggestive, evocative, and deeply paradoxical—readers won't look at trees the same way. Other images, meanwhile, stem from the novel's nameless town and its overtly religious, often horrifically violent rituals. (The publisher's suggested comparison with Shirley Jackson's story "the Lottery" is somehow an injustice to the majesty of this town's cruelties.) Between these two systems, the natural and the ritualistic, is poised the novel's magic. In a typical novel, one system might overcome the other. But here, as in much of Garcia Marquez's work, time is the ultimate organizing force—and what a ruthlessly ambivalent force it is. Rodoreda braids antagonistic forces into a self-imploding folk tale about life and death, like a story Charon might relate to his passengers on the boatride between worlds.

The novel begins with transition and hesitation:

"I removed my clothes and dropped them at the foot of the hackberry tree, beside the madman's rock. Before entering the river, I stopped to observe the color left behind by the sky."

The narrator, a nameless boy of fourteen, on the cusp of manhood, simultaneously begins a journey and pauses. And while there is indeed a journey (years elapse, he marries, has children, participates in several rituals), it is also constantly forestalled (the boy's age is never mentioned again, and he never seems to age, he remains on that cusp). Starting, stopping: this is the narrative's basic modality and is so deeply reflected in the style that credit is due to Martha Tennant for providing the contradictory tug of stillness and of change, the constant oscillation revealing that the book's magnificent themes are alive and active at the level of the language, as well.

Of course, the pauses are only interludes; change is inevitable, things move forward (sort of): two more sentences, and we're in rushing water's cold embrace. The rest of the first chapter—the whole of it fizzing like a prose poem—comes at the reader in a rush of flashbacks interrupted by descriptions of landscape, interrupted by the recounting of certain rituals (including the dead-of-night excavating of red powder, with which the villagers repaint their houses), manifold, involuted, but poetic reflections that in turn are interrupted several times by a bee chasing the narrator to the far shore—a bee whose flightpath pretty accurately maps the narrative's loop-de-loop time and consciousness.

It's impossible to summarize all that unfolds. Death in Spring is as perfect and complete as a fugue, and one of those books (pace Flannery O'Connor) that would take every word of itself to paraphrase: the imagery is simply too integrated, the language too reverberant, the structure too exquisitely intricate.

But trust that with those first simple sentences, a dance of metaphorical action and traditional symbols is set in motion, a dance whose every step is choreographed with consummate artistic powers. The river, the madman's rock, the tree: all these core elements will grow exponentially in significance over the course of the novel. Supporting motifs mature and transform, beautifully weaving the larger images together (and weaving through them) with an almost-organic instinct: that bee in the opening chapter, for example, evolves into birds in the next chapter; and its bumbling flightpath gives way to fluttering butterflies. Glass balls—poof!—become soap bubbles, become balls of fat, become bird's eggs. Then, the bubbling of soap is "rhymed," as it were, with the bubbling of small butterflies, and their bubbling is rhymed with the bubbling of resin rising from the cross-shaped cut in a tree. On and on these symbol- and-image-systems go. Everything in this novel belongs, every living thing is a player in the struggle against the fear of death (and decay) emanating from the town, where the narrator flutters between childhood and adulthood.

As said before, neither nature, nor the town can win in any absolute sense. Paradox rules: metamorphosis—beginning with the stripping off of clothes in the opening sentence—is constantly interrupted by stasis; and in the universe of Death in Spring, some entrapments actually liberate.

From very early on, one wants badly to know: will the town's darkly violent rituals (rituals that steadily confuse oppressor and victim) liberate or destroy the narrator? But the story offers no easy answers; readers must plunge into the river of Rodoreda's metaphysics, where life and death penetrate each other inextricably, where a fantastic landscape mixes with beautiful language arranged in clockwork structures…and then, the answer does come, snapping perfectly into place, revealing the novel as an elegant and profound commentary on mysteries usually addressed only by religion.

Hugh Ferrer is the associate director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.