Death in Spring – Merce Rodoreda (tr. Martha Tennent)

Last time, I had highlighted how August was the month for Women in Translation (WIT), and the first book I had reviewed was Yuko Tsushima’s rather wonderful Territory of Light.

Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring is the second novel I will be discussing this WIT month.

Death in Spring (my edition is from Open Letter Books) was a novel that had been sitting somewhere at the back of my shelves, unnoticed, for more than a couple of years.

But then the novel received another lease of life when it was recently re-issued by Penguin Books under the Penguin European Writers series.

This, and the fact that it was once again favourably received by the blogging community, meant that it was time for me to extract the book from obscurity, dust off the pages and plunge right in…

Death in Spring
Open Letter Books Hardback Edition

Death in Spring is one of those strange yet compelling books that is difficult to write about.

In essence, the novel is about the power and force of nature, the burden of customs and the price of rebellion.

The novel is set in an unknown village where bizarre, cruel customs rule the roost. For instance, every spring the houses are painted with red powder that the men and boys gather from a cave braving the rough weather and howling winds.

Pregnant women are blindfolded…

They covered their eyes because if they gazed at other men, the children they were carrying would also take a peek and begin to resemble the men.

Then there are the faceless men…men who have been physically destroyed because they were made to swim from one end of the river to another to ensure that the water current does not obliterate the village.

Once a man had lost his face, he was always in the company of another faceless man. It was as though they had never had anything at all; being mutilated meant relinquishing whatever they possessed. When they were among themselves they talked about the water and the strange taste of the drink they were forced to swallow before swimming through the river.

Not to mention, every individual about to die is buried in the bark of a tree which has been marked out for him but not before cement is poured into his/her mouth to prevent the soul from escaping.

The novel is told from the perspective of a fourteen year old boy. In the earlier pages, he sees a man go into the forest and bury himself into a tree only to realize the shocking truth…

Death in spring. I threw myself on the ground, on top of the pebbles, my heart drained of blood, my hands icy. I was fourteen years old, and the man who had entered the tree to die was my father.

From thereon, he becomes fast friends with his wild stepmother, who is only a couple of years older to him. For this very reason he becomes the object of constant ridicule and jeer from the villagers.

The villagers used to say my stepmother was a bit retarded, but I didn’t think she was.

Various other strange characters people the tale. There is the elder Senyor who “lived at the top of the small mountain that was cleaved by a cliff and overlooked the village, protecting and menacing.”

There is the blacksmith who had a house at the entrance to the village, and who is entrusted with the task of making a plaque and a ring for every individual born in the village.

And there’s the prisoner who seems to be the only one to really gauge what is going on…the prisoners were essentially thieves whom the villagers punished “by taking away their humanity.”

As I mentioned earlier, nature is a powerful entity in the novel, apparent from the first page itself. The mass of water that descends from the mountains – “all the waters joined together in the delirium of joining and flowed endlessly.” The strong wisteria vines – “the wisteria that over the years upwrenched the houses.” And the pounding wind when the men climb the Maraldina mountain – “the wind was telling us that ours is a senseless job, something that was better left undone.”

In other words, in the battle between nature and man, nature often has the upper hand and how.

There are moments of rebellion too, and attempts to stifle them. Pretty much outcasts, in one chapter, the unnamed boy and his step mother go on a disruptive spree. They scrape the red powder from the cave, and throw it into the well – there is now a dearth of colour to paint the houses in the spring. They throw the paint brushes into the river. They go to the forest and wreak havoc by removing the rings and plaques from the trees and letting the bones of the dead spill out from the barks.

It’s their way of rebelling against the cruel, harrowing customs that the village insists on following.

The unrest that had commenced at the cave returned. Between young and old. For some time the young from the wash district had been saying that people should be left to die their own death. The old men from the slaughterhouse argued that everything should continue as before.

What is the driving force behind these destructive customs? Why do the old men insist on following them?

It’s fear. They want to be afraid. They want to believe, and they want to suffer, suffer, only suffer and they choke the dying to make them suffer even more, so they’ll suffer till their last breath, so that no good moment can ever exist. They are consumed by the fear of desire. They want to suffer so they won’t think about desire.

Death in Spring is the portrayal of a disturbing society steeped in death and decay, and Merce Rodoreda manages to do so in prose that is lyrical, poetic and hypnotic. Lush descriptions abound, an air of strangeness seeps through all pages of the novel and there is a fairy-tale like feel to the narrative. This is not a tale told in a linear fashion, rather it’s like art cinema – moody and atmospheric.

On one level, Death in Spring could be construed as a metaphor for the strange times we live in; the disquieting trend of certain nations resisting change and progress, wanting instead to re-live a ‘not-so palatable’ past.

The blurb on the back of my edition says:

A book for the ages, Death in Spring can be read as a metaphor for Franco’s Spain (or any oppressed society), or as a mythological quest novel.”

I cannot help but agree.

Translation credits from the Catalan go to Martha Tennent.