penguin european writers

Mercè Rodoreda: Death in Spring

Now here is a book cover to arrest the browser’s fickle gaze, with an elegant and beautiful balance of text, image and abstract colour. And it’s not a one-off, but part of a series design – Penguin European Writers – with titles by Cesare Pavese and Violette Leduc coming later this year. For the paper-fetishists among us, it’s a fine book-handling experience too, with flapped covers, slim format and printed on untreated card. And – I almost forgot – it’s one of the strangest and best books I’ve read this year.

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If I had to sum up Death in Spring (1986; tr. 2009 by Martha Tennent) with one line from the book, it would be the sentence that opens a chapter midway through: “When they pulled the boy from the river, he was dead; they returned him to the river.” This is a book full of reverses, balances and contradictions, that is entirely unexpected and repeatedly surprising. It tells of man against nature, where nature always wins because man is an interloper, a corrupted part of nature. The first page has the narrator, an unnamed fourteen-year-old boy, bathing in a river, and immediately the language pinpoints where the power lies. “…the mass of water descending from the mountains … All the waters joined together in the delirium of joining and flowed endlessly…” If the river doesn’t kill, it can leave a man with his face “ripped away when the desperate water hurled him against the rocks that supported the village.” And it’s not just the water: when young men try to collect powder to make paint for the village houses, the wind blows, “telling us that ours was a senseless job, something that was better left undone.” Even plants are in on it: “the strong wisteria vines, the wisteria that over the years upwrenched houses.”

We don’t know where the book is set, and although Rodoreda was Catalan, the setting has a more far-flung feel to it. Indeed, this is not a novel of the world we know at all, as we learn a few chapters in when the narrator’s father opens up a tree by carving a cross into it, then closes himself into the tree to die (though his death has a further stage to go, more grotesque still). It is fully loaded with sensory detail and often has the feel, cruelty and horror of a good fairy tale. “The village was born from the earth’s terrible unrest.” Bees, plants and worms are all malevolent, though they can suffer too in ironic flourishes: “In the fountain little worms curled and uncurled, rapidly. If they entered a person’s body, they burrowed through bones, veins and skin in order to escape. As soon as they broke the surface, they died, because they could not live without water.”

Death in Spring is not – it may go without saying at this stage – a book with a straightforward plot. There are recurring characters – the narrator’s stepmother, a blacksmith and his child, a prisoner, a village elder known as Senyor – and episodes of vivid action, but it is episodic and the book’s effect is not of a line following a path, but of a mood cloud. Colm Tóibín in his introduction does not attempt to explain the book in a traditional sense, and one Amazon reviewer notes that the happy reader must “curb any tendency to gain dominion over the narrative.” That is one way of putting it. In a sense the book doesn’t even have a beginning or ending, as the clear implication is that the narrator will end up as his father did, and that the cycle of life and death with continue. “Things don’t die. They continue. They pass from one to another.” Speaking out against the propagation of life late in the book is Senyor, in an extraordinary monologue:

That’s what kept me alive, never stopping, never stopping, one woman after another, always preferring the other one. I didn’t know then what was inside a man, and when I discovered, I wanted to die. […] Spring is sad, in spring all the world is ill, plants and flowers are the earth’s plague, rotten. The earth would be calmer if it were green-less, without this fury, this blind will that consumes everything but craves more, the affliction of the green, so much greenness and poisonous colour.

It is a book full of anger, horror and disgust but also of beauty in the vivid language and imaginative energy that explodes on every page. It is a bold choice to open the Penguin European Writers series and entirely unlike the nostalgic tale of love in sunny piazzas suggested by the cover image. It was published three years after Rodoreda’s death but in no sense does Death in Spring read like scraps from the writer’s drawer. It is clearly a fully realised work of art, an expression of vision, and entirely sui generis. It is, as the narrator describes a mountain spring, “something alive that I couldn’t understand”, and which is impossible to forget.