Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda
Translated by Martha Tennent
Publisher: Open Letter Press
Reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin
When reading translations, I often worry I might be missing out on something essential to the original. It could be the sound of the language or turns of phrase that simply don’t translate, or cultural or political references I lack the knowledge to appreciate. Conversations with multilingual friends and colleagues who work in translation are not reassuring. Despite the great skill of translators and their clever techniques, some things cannot cross the linguistic divide.
Several pages into Mercè Rodoreda’s stunning novel, Death in Spring, I let go of that fear. Not because I know unequivocally that Martha Tennent’s translation (from Catalan) has delivered every nuance perfectly, but because the imagery, language, and voice she has given us are so singular. I don’t know when I have ever seen petty inhumanity and interpersonal unkindness presented so beautifully.
The story is set in a small village, and narrated by a boy of fourteen. He tells of the local traditions: the red powder the villagers collect each year and use to repaint their homes; the prisoner they keep in a cage and force to neigh like a horse; the way they blindfold their pregnant women to prevent them from falling in love with another man (and thus giving birth to a child that does not look like its father). When the narrator’s father tries to commit suicide by entombing himself in a tree, the villagers race to break him free so they can fill his mouth and stomach with cement for a more proper death.
In talking about his stepmother, the narrator tells us
“I caught her one day eating a bee. When she realized I was watching, she spit it out, saying the bee had flown into her mouth. But I knew she ate bees. She would choose the ones that had drunk the most wisteria juice and keep them alive in her mouth for a moment, then let them play a little before swallowing.” (p. 34)
Rodoreda’s villagers are not simple, charming rustics. They are narrow and brutish, monitoring each other’s behavior in order to punish those who break the rules. The village itself is a site of savage beauty, overgrown with wisteria that threatens the foundations of the houses, and a wild river that takes at least one young man each year. One of Rodoreda’s great feats is how quickly she establishes village behaviors as long-standing norms, even as her characters violate them. The poetic language she uses to describe their behavior serves to highlight their cruelty.
Born in 1908 in Barcelona, Rodoreda was well established as a writer working for the autonomous Government of Catalonia when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Along with many other intellectuals, she was forced into exile, going first to France and then to Switzerland during World War II. Considered by many to be the most important Catalan writer of the twentieth century, Rodoreda died in 1983, and Death in Spring was published posthumously. This novel can be read as a metaphor for Spain under Franco, or simply a commentary on how merciless humans can be to each other for no other reason than this is the way we have always done it.
Bronwyn Mauldin is the author of the novel Love Songs of the Revolution. She won The Coffin Factory magazine’s 2012 very short story award, and her Mauldin’s work has appeared in the Akashic Books web series, Mondays Are Murder, and at Necessary Fiction, CellStories, The Battered Suitcase, Blithe House Quarterly, Clamor magazine and From ACT-UP to the WTO. She is a researcher with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and she is creator of GuerrillaReads, the online video literary magazine.