Death in Spring
by Mercé Rodoreda (La mort i la primavera, 1986)
translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent (2009)
Open Letter Books (2009)
I‘ve seen Mercé Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves on several respected lists of favorite books. That said, I have never read it, despite its being on my periphery for some time. This past summer Open Letter Books published the first English translation of Rodoreda’s last work, published in Catalan after her death, Death in Spring. Reviews have spoken about this book’s look at the oppression Rodoreda experienced in Franco’s Spain, and that’s a good way to look at it; however, it is so much more universal, an archetypal fable in fact. The cover, an image of a tree made out of bones, is macabre and compelled me to read the book as soon as it came in the mail.
Here are the first lines. Tell me if, thanks to the title, you get a similar feeling as I did:
I removed my clothes and dropped them at the foot of the hackberry tree, beside the madman’s rock. Before entering the river, I stopped to observe the color left behind in the sky. The sun-dappled light was different now that spring had arrived, reborn after living beneath the earth and within branches. I lowered myself gently into the water, hardly daring to breathe, always with the fear that, as I entered the water world, the air — finally rid of my nuisance — would begin to rage and be transformed into a furious wind, like the winter wind that nearly carried away houses, trees, and people. I had sought the broadest part of the river, a place farthest from the village, a place where no one ever came. I didn’t want to be seen.
When I first read this, the tone and phrases such as “the air — finally rid of my nuisance,” led me to believe this young narrator — a fourteen year old boy — was just about to step into the river to commit suicide. Turns out I was wrong. Kind of. The narrator is going for a swim. But the deathly tone is present throughout this beautifully written novel — this beautifully written and very very strange novel.
Death in Spring has favorable comparisons to Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” Here we have a civil society that feeds on violent, superstitious rituals. The village is built upon the rocks that cover a section of river. Each year, one of the village men is selected by lottery to swim under the city to see if the river will take the town. This invariably leads to the victim’s death or mutilation. Those who live mutilated are called the faceless ones. Here is one of Rodoreda’s accounts of this brutal ritual:
Two very old men had already prepared the hollow tree trunk with the short sticks. All of the sticks had sharp tips, except one, which ended in a fork. The man who drew the forked stick was forced to swim under the village. The faceless men, the noseless, the earless, all of them shut themselves into the stables so as not to dishearten the others. The one who drew the forked stick needed to be brave, brave as the sun. The hollow tree trunk with the sticks inside was painted pink, inside and out. It was repainted every year, just like the houses. The men and older boys had to run past the trunk and seize a stick. When a sharp stick was drawn, everyone was silent. When the forked stick was drawn everyone burst out laughing and the children jumped up and down.
A boy who was not much older than me drew the stick. His face was like others’, but his nose was straighter, his cheeks more delicate. When he glimpsed the tip of the stick, he turned pale with the pallor of fear, and everyone knew — even before seeing it — that he had chosen the forked stick. Always, always, the one who drew the forked stick turned pale.
The blacksmith and a group of men accompanied the boy to the upper edge of the village, where the water from the river thurst itself downward, toward darkness. The boy stripped, and they gave him a drink; while he drank, his eyes wandered from one man to the other. He took too long to dive into the water, and the men had to throw him in, alone and naked.
Our young narrator grows up with this yearly ritual, but this is only part of the brutality. When he was younger, each year all of the adults would lock the children up into the small spaces beneath the stairs while they went to the forest. As it turns out, this is the forest of the dead. When a person dies (and no one is allowed to die with dignity), they are entombed in a tree full of sap with a shovel full of cement shoved down their throat. Overseeing this oppressive society is the Senyor, an old man who lives above the city. But before you think he’s the cause of the trouble, I don’t think it spoils the book to reveal that he is as much a victim as anyone else.
This brutality is juxtaposed with beautiful language describing the wisteria that chokes the village, the bees that menace the inhabitants, and the soap bubbles that turn to glass. This book also has the most beautiful and aching account of a burial I’ve ever read. It is hauntingly beautiful, extremely unsettling. Those trees that house the bones of the dead come to represent cocoons of death, a kind of place where death dwells, waiting to be released. This motif is a surprising and illuminating way to examine life.