Literary Journeys through Catalonia: Searching for Mercè Rodoreda’s Barcelona

By Azareen Van der Vliet & Leonardo Francalanci

With Mercè Rodoreda's novel La Placa del Diamant  (translated as The Time of the Doves) in hand,  we took a lulling hour-and-a-half train ride from Girona to the sprawling, modernist city of Barcelona. The distance between Girona, the capital of the rural province of Gironès to Barcelona, the birth city of post-Spanish Civil War author Mercè Rodoreda is not great: an estimated ninety kilometers separates the two regional capitals. The train cuts through farmland, rolling hills, and mist-covered valleys. On humid days the fog gets caught between the silver plàtans: the trees, typical of Girona, are carefully planted in rows, and appear elongated and skeletal against the movement of the train. Eventually the landscape gives way to towns, and the towns to suburbs, apartment complexes crowd up against the tracks and the train cuts through them, dipping in and out of tunnels. As we settled into the ride, browsed through Rodoreda's novel. The epigraph  reads, “My dear, these things are life,” it reads. The sentence flashed at us as the train cut in and out of the light.

The stuff of life. Wars, famines, geological shifts, unexpected technological leaps, the reorganization of space according to the aesthetic values of a particular time period. In short: the simultaneity of infinitely diverse realities is the stuff of life. And those realities can come into contact with one another and give rise to innumerable events, destructive or life-affirming or both. “My dear, these things are life.” Which is to say anything is possible, anything at any moment is possible, and if one is open to life one is open to the unpredictability of its content. And Rodoreda's novel, set before, during, and after the Spanish Civil War in the region of Catalonia, demonstrates the burden of unpredictable historical events on one's quotidian survival with unquestioning force.

Colometa, little dove, is the name of Rodoreda's narrator—the name given to her by her impulsive and volatile husband, Quimet, who, in the first years of their marriage, fills their house in Barcelona's neighborhood of Gràcia with doves. He breeds the birds in order to supplement their income, but the money never makes its way home; Quimet gives away two out of every three birds. Years later, as the Civil War erupts, he takes off to fight on the side of the Republicans, against Franco's rising army, dies, and leaves Colometa widowed with two young children who, along with her, begin to suffer from poverty and extreme hunger as the novel progresses through the war. The book is narrated in first-person stream of consciousness, and there are no formal conversation markers: Colometa's internal and external worlds overlap with no boundaries. She drifts through the space of her neighborhood as it deteriorates.  Everything happens to her, and the violence of the events are magnified by her lack of strength to push back against the world.      

We closed the book, and as the train pulled into the station, we wondered: What did Colometa's world look like? What were its possibilities and limits? And has Rodoreda's Barcelona, which inspired the details of the novel, been preserved? With these questions in mind we got off and walked above ground and headed toward the neighborhood of Sant Gervasi where Mercè Rodoreda was born in 1908. 

II.

The first point on the map we had diligently hand-copied from the Fundació Mercè Rodoreda Web site was a botiga: an old grocer’s shop on Carrer Saragossa, where Rodoreda used to go as a young child with her grandfather. We walked up and down the street a few times; the botiga was certainly marked on the Fundació map, but it was nowhere to be found. After a thorough search we decided to stop at a bar on the corner of Carrer Padua to ask for information. We relayed the purpose of our journey to the bar owner. We told her that we were taking a literary tour of Mercè Rodoreda’s childhood neighborhood, but she didn’t have any information about the shop, and she didn’t seem to know much about Rodoreda either. For a moment, she gazed at us in bewilderment, and then her face slipped back to its former state of resigned indifference.  But a few minutes later she leaned over the counter to take a second peak at our map. She had grown curious, and began to share that they had emigrated to Barcelona from Soria, another region of Spain, about twenty years earlier. She pointed to the black-and-white pictures of rural Soria that were hanging from the walls, amid jamones and strings of garlic and dried red peppers. When they had arrived in the neighborhood, she said, there was still a lively, familial atmosphere. There were a lot of shops and local businesses that served the community: a pharmacy, a butchery, a grocery shop, a shoemaker, a place were you could buy home-baked beans of all kinds; there was even a vaqueria, a cow farm, that provided the neighborhood with fresh milk. In those days, Sant Gervasi was still on the outskirts of Barcelona. She told us that over the years the local residents had sold their old houses and businesses, and that their property had been torn down to make space for high-rise apartment buildings.  Just then, outside, a young man walked by and everyone in the bar turned to look at him through the big glass windows: he was walking a pet pot-bellied pig on a leash. The bar owner looked at him in the same way she had received us moments before: momentarily surprised, but ultimately accepting; desensitized and indifferent. The neighborhood had become unrecognizable to her and there was nothing left to do about it.

When we left the bar we headed toward Rodoreda's family house on Carrer de Manuel Angelon. We had diligently leafed through old photographs of her childhood home: we knew that her grandfather, Pere Gurguí, had built a fountain at the center of the garden in honor of his friend, the Catalan poet Jacint Verdaguer, and in the pictures we had seen Rodoreda as a child, dressed as a nymph, happily leaning against the enormous fountain. Soon we found ourselves at the upper end of a short, steep street flanked by an enclosed parking lot, restaurants, and gentlemen's clubs. We walked up and down the street looking for the torre, the tower-shaped villa set in the center of a large garden, but found nothing. Eventually, walking up and down the street, we spotted a bronze plaque on the parking-lot façade honoring Rodoreda's birth place. Her childhood house, with its tower and beautiful garden that had inspired so many of her books, like the grocer’s shop and so many other local businesses, was no longer there: it had been torn down. As we stood there in disbelief, an elderly couple approached and offered to help us. As it turned out they had lived on Carrer Angelon for many years. In fact, Jordi, the gentleman, knew Mercè Rodoreda, or la senyora Mercè as he called her, personally. He was born and raised in the building next door to her and when he was little he used to play with her son. He could even remember the fountain dedicated to Verdaguer: his ball used to end up in it when he was playing on the street, and he used to call la senyora Mercè to get it back. He then suggested we try to find the porter of the building on Carrer Balmes, where Rodoreda had lived after she had sold her childhood home forty or fifty years back. He didn’t think there was anyone else left in the neighborhood who could tell us first-hand stories. He said that even the people at City Hall, who had decided to put up a plaque to commemorate the author’s birth place, did not know where her house stood originally; it had been torn down during the years of the Franco dictatorship. City Hall had gone to him for help, and nobody could believe that in the place of her house now stood a giant parking lot. Antonia, Jordi’s wife, on the other hand, used to live at the Plaça del Diamant before they married. She hadn’t read Rodoreda’s La Plaça del Diamant, or ever met her, but, as she said, she had lived the Civil War first-hand, and what’s more, right in the center of Gràcia. She didn’t need to read Rodoreda’s book to know what it felt like; she had her memories to rely on for that, she said.

We parted ways and headed to Gràcia to complete our journey. We walked by Gràcia's fish and vegetable market and took Carrer Gran de Gràcia to find Cafè Monumental, where the characters in La Plaça del Diamant often gathered. We walked the street several times. There were chain stores, bakeries, donut, and ice cream shops, and a few bars. But once again, the site we were looking for belonged to the distant past. Cafè Monumental, as we were told by a local teller, no longer existed. 

Slightly disillusioned, we headed for la plaça del Diamant, our last landmark. It was already dark when we arrived, and the plaza’s atmosphere was lively and relaxed. The surrounding cafes had set up tables outside, and people were happily sitting out drinking wine. We wandered around, trying to match the real space of the square with the literary space of the book: we imagined the neighborhood festivities represented at the novel’s opening scene, Quimet and Colometa’s wedding, the apartment building they lived in, the birth of their children, the doves, the war, the years after the war when Colometa moved away from the house she had lived in with Quimet and married again; all the fragments that composed the characters’ lives. At the close of the book, years after the war, Colometa revisits la plaça del Diamant in order to reconnect with her past. It is then that her silent living-out of the tragedies of her era, and the pain of having lived through the Spanish Civil War, manifests itself in a desperate, but cathartic scream. In a corner of the square, the statue by Catalan sculptor Xavier Medina-Campeny reproduces that exact moment: from a triangle of solid metal, Colometa emerges, screaming, holding her hands up to the air.  Certain parts of Barcelona had been altogether lost to the Civil War and the subsequent Franco dictatorship, the space of the city no longer matched her memories, just as the Barcelona we had hoped to find had also vanished into the folds of time. “My dear,” we read again as we opened the book, “these things are life.”


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