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.

Such Small Hands – Andres Barba (tr. Lisa Dillman)

Portobello Books is a publishing house to watch out for.

In 2015, it released the marvelous The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Hang which turned out to be one of my top reads that year. It’s a story about how a supposedly unremarkable woman decides one to day to become a vegetarian and shocks not only her husband but her whole family and the consequences this act has for everyone (this might not be such a big thing in our world and we are free to make that choice, but in a rigid society such as Korea, it is considered an act of rebellion).

I loved that book unreservedly and have always been keeping a close eye on Portobello’s catalogue every year.

When Portobello published Such Small Hands by Andres Barba, it caught my fancy. The premise of the novel was intriguing and the cover also had a lot to do with it. It’s quite creepy with the doll on the front.

Onto the story then…

Such Small Hands
Portobello Books Harback Edition

This is how the novel opens:

Her father died instantly, her mother in the hospital.

“Your father died instantly, your mother is in a coma” were the exact words, the first ones that Marina heard. You could touch those words, rest your hand on each sinuous curve; expectant, incomprehensible words.

Marina has lost her parents in a car accident. Marina survives the crash, and while she is traumatised, she is unable to grasp the significance of what has happened. For her, the entire incident is an amalgam of sounds and images. She is too young to articulate these events into words.

Meanwhile, in the hospital, a psychologist is trying to help her cope and gives her a doll.

The doll was small and compact. The psychologist gave it to her to make her a real girl once and for all.

Marina is then told that she will be taken to an orphanage. She has no clue what an orphanage is, obviously not ever having been to one before.

It was too hard to look forward to the orphanage; she didn’t know how to do it. And unable to picture it, random images jumbled together and came gurgling out like a death rattle. She looked at dolly to quiet them. Someone had gone to her house and packed her a doubtful suitcase. Winter clothes and summer clothes all jumbled together.

It’s at the orphanage where the story shifts to a whole new level.

Up until now, the story is told from Marina’s point of view. But once the focus is on the orphanage, the author’s narration shifts to an eerie chorus; a chorus which represents all the other girls. After that, the narration alternates between Marina’s point of view and the chorus of the girls.

In an interview, Granta asked the author what drew him to the collective ‘we’ voice – the chorus, the voice of the other girls. This is what he said:

“I had a tough time finding the appropriate perspective to tell the tale. What finally changed it for me was recognizing that what I was writing was nothing more nor less than a Greek tragedy and that what was therefore needed was . . . a chorus! That discovery gave me a way to give the girls a voice that was both conscious and childlike. It was a literary device that allowed me to be inside and outside the girls.”

The moment Marina makes her entry, it is evident to the girls that she is different. And they do not know how to deal with it.

Marina’s individuality poses a threat to an otherwise calm existence the girls had been leading. Prior to her arrival, they all did the same thing, followed the same routines.

But once Marina is in their midst, they become aware of themselves, of their bodies in a way they never did before.

We don’t even know if we actually saw it: Marina’s scar. We had to defend ourselves against that scar that Marina didn’t hide. Suddenly, we saw each other seeing it, we differentiated each other among things, among the others, we differentiated her, her back, her walk, her eyes, her face like a vague feeling of fear.

And it all started there, like a breach, in her scar.

We became aware of each other and we felt naked before that body that wasn’t like our bodies. For the first time we felt fat, or ugly; we realized that we had bodies and that those bodies could not be changed. Just as she had materialized, we had materialized: these hands, these legs. Now we knew that we were inescapably the way we were. It was a discovery you could do nothing with, a discovery that served no purpose. We huddled together when she approached. We were afraid to touch her.

The girls are also not quite sure how to deal with Marina. They sense she is different. And that makes the girls love her and loathe her at the same time.

During the daytime, the girls are mean to Marina and treat her badly, and yet they are also fascinated by her and want her to be part of them. During the nights, Marina holds some power over them, inventing games that the girls want to eagerly play.

This is a short novel at 94 pages, but Barba manages to transport you into the world of children, their minds and how logic for them is ever shifting. It shows how children have a completely different world of their own. And all may not necessarily be hunky dory as adults perceive it to be. For most adults, children are the sweetest beings. But Barba highlights how children are equally prone to committing acts of cruelty, and playing politics. Adults may not think much of it (the adult world after all is far too complex), but for children their world is real, they live in the present with feelings and emotions that are quite intense.

I didn’t quite love this novel when I was reading it. And yet I was transfixed by it. As the novel veered towards its conclusion, it got murkier, haunting and gripping. More importantly, a few weeks after having read this book, it has stayed quite fresh in my mind and I continue to think about it from time to time; all of which are hallmarks of a very good novel.

Translation credits go to Lisa Dillman.

 

Tales from the 1001 Nights – Dali’s Watercolours

To me, for many years, Salvador Dali was synonymous with Surrealism. He painted those bizarre images, which supposedly evoked his dreams and hallucinations.

Dali Main Book Folio Society Limited Edition

I was never much of a Dali enthusiast to be honest. His oil paintings didn’t really speak to me. Atleast not in the way Impressionism did (represented by Monet, Renoir, Degas et al). Clearly, I am missing something.

The only painting of his which is etched in my mind is also probably his most famous one – The Persistence of Memory.

Dali the-persistance-of-memory
Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory

But what is lesser known about Dali – atleast to me – is that he also produced watercolours. And oh boy, those are completely on a different plane altogether.

To put it simply, they are brilliant.

Many of these watercolours, Dali produced as illustrations for books.

So when a Limited Edition of Dali’s watercolours by Folio Society came out (picture at the start) for The 1001 Nights (or The Arabian Nights, if you will), it greatly piqued my interest.

The popularity of the Nights…

There has always been something quite fascinating about The Arabian Nights.  These medieval tales are set in a world that is exotic, magical and other worldly. The main story arch is where Shahrazad relates tales every night to the king to delay her execution.

In world culture, the influence of The Arabian Nights is immense. These tales have been popular subjects for films and have also inspired many pieces of music. They have also greatly influenced a diverse range of authors and writers not just in England but all across the world. Many of these writers have alluded to The 1001 Nights in their own works.

It is hardly surprising then that these tales were also a constant source of fascination for artists and book illustrators – especially Golden Age illustrators such as Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen to name a few.

Here’s what the introduction in the Penguin edition of The Arabian Nights says:

The Arabian Nights is a vast storytelling ocean in which the readers can lose themselves. One story, like a wave, is absorbed into the one that follows. The drift of the narrative tide carries us, like Sindbad, to strange places, and the further from home, the stranger those places are.

Ifrits, jinns, sultans, viziers, beautiful princesses, witches, ghouls, monsters, sorcerors, beasts and birds abound in these tales. Many of the stories are also quite erotic as they are suffused with sex.

Little wonder, Salvador Dali was also seduced by The Arabian Nights and desired to illustrate it.

Dali’s obsession with the Nights…

Infact, it seems that Dali had engineered The Arabian Nights commission himself. Giuseppe and Mara Albaretto, a wealthy Italian couple who became enthusiasts and collectors of Dali’s work, arranged for him to illustrate a series of books for the Turin-based publisher Rizzoli.

The first of these was the Bible in 1963, but Dali, was not as devout a Catholic as Giuseppe was. He insisted that the book he wanted to illustrate was The 1001 Nights.

Why his obsession with the Nights?

Here’s the publisher:

Everything about Dali seemed peculiarly suited to the Nights – his fascination with the Arab world (he believed that he was of Moorish descent), his indomitable and tortured obsession with the erotic, even his improvised approach to composition, which mirrored that of the tales’ narrator Shahrazad. Yet above all it is his imaginative power, his ability not merely to transport his readers to an exotic world, but to take them on an exhilarating sensory and psychological journey, that makes him one of the great interpreters of this collection of stories. Executed in a vivid blaze of colours, his illustrations abound with figures – humans, animals, curious monsters – which shift between the familiar and the disorientating. At once rooted in the tales and departing from them, Dali’s watercolours have an almost hallucinatory effect.

Here’s more from the Folio Society on his sumptuous illustrations in the introduction to the Dali illustrated edition of The Arabian Nights:

Dali images

Dali produced a total of 100 illustrations for The 1001 Nights, of which 50 have survived in good condition.

The watercolours (which are occasionally supplemented by pen and ink or charcoal) are all dated 1966.

Indeed, as you will see the illustrations are vibrant with striking colours and pulse with life in a manner that was rarely matched by other artists. They are exciting, inventive and brim with fierce energy. They will transfix and mesmerise you!

I have displayed a few of them here…

Dali 1

Dali 2

Here are some more…

Dali 3

Dali 5

More to gush and drool over…

Dali 4Dali 7Dali 6Dali 8

The Best of 2016

It’s been a great year of travel, and armchair travel!

Here are my top ten reads for 2016. Unique voices, innovative and sharp writing, and strong themes make them stand out.

Relationships dominate the list but they are not always romantic. ‘The Blue Room’ and ‘Hot Milk’ explore the complex relationship between mother and daughter as the daughters struggle to gain individuality. ‘Hot Milk’, particularly, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize during the year.

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ beautifully captures the growing love a young French girl feels for her father who has just returned from war and who she is seeing for the first time.

Can two sisters, in a remote northernmost part of Norway, live harmoniously together? Or is each one deliberately trying to wreck the life of the other? ‘The Looking Glass Sisters’, a much darker work, had me riveted.

In ‘Attachment’, a French student reminisces on her romantic relationship with her professor and how it was received by her family. ‘Paulina & Fran’ throws light on bohemian life in art colleges and how the reality, once you graduate, can be different.

However, human contact is not something one craves all the time. ‘Pond’ is a captivating tale of the pleasures of a life in solitude told by an unnamed young woman in a series of vignettes.

‘Manual for Cleaning Women’ has been a real find. Berlin led an eventful life. Brought up in the remote mining camps of the Midwest, she was a lonely child in wartime Texas, a rich and privileged young woman in Santiago, and a bohemian hipster in 50s New York. She held jobs as an ER nurse and cleaning woman while raising four boys all one her own. All of her experiences are captured in this rich collection of short stories in prose that is simply luminous.

And no one writes about California and LA as brilliantly as Joan Didion does in Play It As It Lays. The novel brutally dissects 1960s American culture.

The Faulkner is of course a classic and very rightly so.

That rounds up a truly wonderful reading year!

And oh, I just noticed that Faulkner is the only male author on the list:)

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