Deaths in Spring
8 April 2011 |
March came and I found myself in the fervid world of Mercè Rodoreda, the Catalonian novelist (Open Letter, the new translation press out of the University of Rochester, is giving the late Rodoreda a grand embrace). Having read Time of the Doves (La Plaça del diamante, 1939), her early, unfiltered novel on Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, I walked into Death in Spring (La mort i la primavera, 1986) expecting to hear that work’s tone of naïve resilience. Instead I stepped into a dusty mountain village suffocating on its gruesome rituals, drowning in its turbid river. The rituals—locking children in kitchen pantries, stuffing concrete in the mouths of the dying so their souls don’t escape and then sealing their bodies upright inside of trees, sending a man each year in spring into the fast-pounding river to be thrashed by the rocks, etc. –are a surprisingly effective mirror on own uncontrollable violence, but Rodoreda meant them as a metaphor for a nation so oppressed it knows only how to repress itself. The freest man is the town’s prisoner.
The writing is so lyrical, so lush and aware of the natural world, you almost forget that death is all around. Indeed, Rodoreda was at the end of her life when she invented this place (Death in Spring was published posthumously). “Where does death begin?” she wonders, does “it spring from your skin or surface from beneath it?” At the close of the book, the main character is dying. His wife, who was also his stepmother, has fled, on feet, he laments, which “carried something warm and tender above them that would have helped me to live and sleep and breathe.”
Rodoreda, at death’s door, is philosophic: life may be a slow dying but death is unfailingly brutal. Cross the Iberian peninsula and there is the king of the philosophic novel, José Saramago, who died last year, writing one of his last books, Death With Interruptions (As intermitências da morte in translation from Mariner Books, 2009). Here he is trying, with the great specter of his deceptively hilarious prose, to trick death. Yes, Mercè, he is saying, death is everywhere and immutable, but can she be seduced?
And so here is his imaginary Lisbon, which wakes up on New Year’s Day to realize no one has died. Death has vanished. She returns sometime later with a public announcement and a note for an ordinary 49-year-old cellist. The fun ensues as death tracks down the cellist, who has, without even realizing it, cheated her already. And then, in the cellist’s usually barren bedroom, and in the once cold hands of death, life truly blossoms. I guess it really is spring.