FEBRUARY 13, 2017
IN EARLY MAY 1983, Gabriel García Márquez found himself perusing a bookstore in Barcelona. When he asked about the Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda, the bookseller told him that she’d died a month earlier. He was taken by surprise. The news of her death, he would later write in his belated obituary for the Spanish newspaper El País, hadn’t circulated beyond Catalonia. Yet “the reason why she is not well known, even within Spain,” he wrote, “can neither be attributed to her having written in a language with limited reach nor to her human dramas having taken place in a secret corner of the very secret city of Barcelona.” Perhaps it could’ve been attributed to a more personal decision instead.
Despite her fame outside of Catalonia, Rodoreda’s life is still, mostly, a well-kept secret. (Only one major biography of her exists, in Catalan.) This is especially true of her political activism. Born in Barcelona in 1908, Rodoreda came of age at a time when the city’s writers were looking for new sources of political inspiration. In 1898, the United States’s imperial expansion had brought the Spanish Empire to its knees, recolonizing Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines in the process. Almost overnight, Madrid’s literary scene was blanketed with eulogies for a nation that never realized its days were numbered as a world power. Catalonia took the news differently. Catalan writers and artists sought to distance themselves from Madrid, seeing the outcome of the Spanish-American War as an opportunity to renew Catalonia’s literary culture as well as to mark it as different from that of the rest of Spain. A number of variants of Catalan modernism subsequently emerged, challenging both Madrid’s imperial nostalgia and Catalonia’s still extant fascination with 19th-century parochial themes.
At the age of 23, Rodoreda published her first novel, Sóc una dona honrada? (“Am I an Honorable Lady?”) in 1932, barely a year after Lluís Companys proclaimed Spain’s Second Republic from the balcony of Barcelona’s city hall. By then, many of the region’s writers had adopted a style known as noucentisme (roughly, “the style of the 1900s”). An outgrowth of an earlier modernist movement, the avant-garde style was a curious mixture of classicism and rationality. It saw poetry, not the novel, as the 20th-century’s transcendental genre. And it often propped up Platonic ideals in place of the messy material reality of everyday life.
Rodoreda was part of a young left-wing wave of Catalan writers during the ’30s who walked the tightrope of the new style’s literary and political projects. For these writers, noucentisme had importantly razed the shrines to tradition and authority of previous generations of Catalan writers. It had dispensed with odes to a mythologized, pastoral past. But, in so doing, it had oriented the region’s literature toward the elite corners of European modernism, papering over class conflict with the broad brush of aesthetic taste. On the ruins of 19th-century parochialism, it had built new shrines to modern enterprise, industrialization, and other emblems of Barcelona’s superiority to the agricultural economy that dominated the rest of Iberia. And all of it, Rodoreda quickly realized, was told through the bespectacled vantage of bourgeois men.
All three of the novels she published before the Spanish Civil War would confront these masculine ideals head on. She confronted the noucentisme desire for the “well-planted woman” and “the ideal city of Catalunya,” theorized by figures such as Eugeni d’Ors — an essayist and philosopher whose son, Álvaro, maintained an extensive correspondence with the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. She parodied the powerful myth of Don Juan, which had permeated much of European culture from Molière to Byron, from Mozart to Strauss. And she dismantled masculine virility through parody, creating pathetic male figures whose adulterous temptations never climax.
Though on the left, Rodoreda wasn’t party to Barcelona’s anarchist experiments. She instead found her kin in the socialism of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, a Catalan nationalist socialist party, and the Agrupació d’Escriptors Catalans (AEC), a trade union of writers that allied itself with the larger socialist trade union, the Unión General de Trabajadores. In 1936, months after Franco’s coup d’état, she and other writers signed a letter from the AEC to the Catalan Parliament proclaiming their adherence to and support for the Second Republic. During the Civil War, she dispatched books to hospitals and the front lines, and participated in the AEC’s radio broadcasts. Somewhere in between, she met and befriended Andreu Nin, the founder of the Workers’ Party for Marxist Unification. The party, better known by its acronym, POUM, was memorialized by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, where he decried the growing reliance of the left on Stalin’s support. Nin and Rodoreda shared literary tastes. During the war, Nin translated Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky directly from Russian. Their friendship quickly turned romantic, though it would not last long. In June 1937, Nin and other POUM members were arrested and sent to a camp near Madrid. They were tortured and killed just several days later.
After the war, Rodoreda followed many Spaniards into exile, first across France and then to Geneva, where she wrote her most celebrated works, including La plaça del diamant (The Time of the Doves). In 1965, Rodoreda wrote to Joaquim Molas, the professor and literary critic who had just started to work on the first version of her complete works. “There are four novels that are so bad I would like to keep them dead,” she wrote. Those four novels, which included Am I an Honorable Lady?, were her first four, and her shot across the bow has mostly stuck with readers and literary critics ever since.
War, So Much War, deftly translated into English for the first time by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent, was the last novel to appear during Rodoreda’s lifetime. It was published in 1980, three years before she would die of cancer, and was translated into Spanish two years later. The novel is in many ways an effort to rewrite the prewar novels she so despised for the postwar reader who had grown to admire her. In it, she no longer takes aim at concepts as grand as myth or assumptions as deep as generational divides. But although there is no Don Juan story to upend, the novel avails itself of narrative structures as old as the Spanish novel itself. It has dozens of scenes, one leading to the next as if by a single thread, and is in many ways a familiar rewriting of the picaresque style. Its rhythm, replete with brief and quickly paced interactions among the characters, and dreamlike atmosphere recall the anonymously written 16th-century story The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities — perhaps the first and most recognizable example of the picaresque genre.
The novel follows the 15-year-old Adrià Guinart, who, like nearly every 15-year-old, has what most would dismissively call a moment of teenage rebellion. Rodoreda treats it instead as a one-sixth-life crisis, spurred by the memory of his father. Adrià’s father was a train conductor. One foggy day, his father spotted a man:
walking right down the middle of the tracks toward the train. As soon as my father saw him, he blew his whistle. The man, who was small at first but started getting bigger, walked on as though there were no train bearing down on him. He got so close my father could see the clothes he was wearing: light-colored trousers and a yellow-and-black striped shirt. My father braked. There was screaming in the compartments. My father got off the train, followed by a group of passengers. They found no one on the tracks.
This happened twice more. “Plunged into the well of that mystery,” Adrià concludes, “he died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.” Adrià was 11.
The mysterious event seems to serve, on the one hand, as the reason behind Adrià’s running away at the behest of a 17-year-old friend to see if they can make it to the front lines of the war and, on the other, as the motor for the novel, which hums along like a train at full speed ahead, every so often, slamming on the brakes only to reveal a hazy fog with seemingly nothing behind it. The screeching halts are unanticipated and come one by one. The first comes just pages later, when Adrià chances on a man suspended from a tree, in the act of hanging himself. He cuts the rope and the man comes crashing down, still alive, before turning the tables on him: “Why did you cut the rope?” he asks, “with a husky voice that seemed to come from beyond the grave.” Another halting scene goes so far as to give the reader a blood-in-the-mouth aftertaste when Adrià, like the Lazarillo of the story five centuries before him, is beaten like a defenseless fish for supposedly stealing a piece of ham. But perhaps the most arresting moment comes when the young Adrià is bequeathed all the possessions of a dead man he had only known for a short while. The man’s only request: to destroy all of his papers, just in case. (Looting remainders and finding people guilty by association was a feature of the Francoist modus operandi.) Each scene requires a not insignificant degree of suspension of disbelief, the combination of violent imagery and unlikely outcome propelling our narrator, like a ragdoll, into the next scene.
As the narrative moves — in several directions at once — and the story’s totality comes into focus, the events counterintuitively take on the form of outlines rather than full-bodied images, receptacles for the reader who might stumble upon an errant line or metaphor that reminds one of one’s own memories of the Francoist past. A pastor at one point tells Adrià, “They say we are at war, that brothers are killing brothers, but here the God of grass and trees, sky and fog, water and rock continues to bless tender-hearted men.” I have intuited over the years from visiting Spain that such was the attitude of my mother’s village, nestled in the pastoral countryside Antonio Machado lyricized in Campos de Castilla. Like in Rodoreda’s Catalan villages, life in Castile’s little towns was simple, though difficult, and politics always seemed to make things unnecessarily complicated. As they had done since the 16th century, when they called themselves comuneros and became the protagonists of what one historian called “the first modern revolution,” Castilians adopted a position that conveniently fit hand-in-glove with Franco’s regime: they lived in as much fear of their rulers as they did of God.
After the Spanish Civil War, Rodoreda took several years to return to writing novels. In the mid-1940s, she claimed that pain in her right arm prevented her from writing. She suddenly took up painting, and, over the next decade, would complete some 150 canvases — watercolors and collages, never oils. Like the scenes that make up War, So Much War, her paintings revealed their meaning less in their pictorial subjects than in the thick and blurry lines that gave them shape. From one angle, the viewer might catch a reference to Picasso, from another to Miró or Kandinsky. But upon encountering his work in Geneva in 1954, Rodoreda told fellow Catalan writer Baltasar Porcel, “I began to paint following Klee, in a frenzied manner.” “She painted in order to write,” Mercè Ibarz, the Catalan scholar, once said. And that certainly appears to be true in War, So Much War. Rodoreda’s novels, like Klee’s paintings, are in large part defined by mood and line. Just as one might, like Walter Benjamin, make a metaphor of history out of Klee’s Angelus Novus, one might make a metaphor of memory out of Rodoreda’s War, So Much War.
Despite the promise of the title, she never addresses the Spanish Civil War directly. (She explains in the prologue, which was unfortunately left out of the English translation, that her original title for the novel was El soldat i les roses; in English, The Soldier and the Roses.) As we follow Adrià across what feels like hundreds of miles of terrain, peppered with extreme personalities, attractions, and idiosyncrasies, we never glimpse the battlefield. We instead see its wreckage. Flattened villages, bobbing bodies, and people without their loved ones are the signposts that let Adrià know when it’s time to move on. Repetition becomes a mode of survival. “I gave him the same story: the soldiers, the war, losing my way.” And symbols of innocence no longer have the meaning they once did: “Between two fingers the oldest [girl] was holding an earthworm that coiled and uncoiled. She placed it on the ground, and the two of them started poking it with twigs. The slick, red worm kept squirming. They didn’t leave it alone until it had been pulled to pieces.”
But that wreckage also includes the wreckage of Adrià’s own body. Rodoreda is subtly attentive to how one’s body registers the passing of the days. More often than not, timestamps come when Adrià remembers how many days he’s gone without eating, eerily reminiscent of the scenes of starvation in J. M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K. “The smell of the tomato-rubbed bread and the ham was driving me mad,” Adrià narrates in one scene, before, compelled by hunger, briefly impersonating a dog and sinking his teeth into a sandwich that has fallen to the ground.
War jolts from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, like an earthquake, and many of the characters he encounters use a litany of pronouns — “they,” “them,” “everyone” — to dole out responsibility. “This war is a terrible calamity, can anyone tell me why we are fighting?” Adrià asks a group of tradesmen.
The bricklayer said it was to beat back the enemy, but then the carpenter pointed out that, to our enemies, we are the enemy. The electrician said: Even if we win this war it’ll be as though we’ve lost it, the way a war is set up, everyone loses. The hearth builder joined us and said that we could cry all we wanted and there would still be nothing to plow, we were all cannon fodder, nothing but cannon fodder.
These and other conversations about the war run up against Adrià’s own experience of it. He witnesses summary executions in broad daylight, which reek of the tactics of the Falange, Franco’s military force. He sees the working classes rebuild houses flattened by bombs and large estates rotting next to their wealthy owners. All throughout, Rodoreda’s descriptions of violence, as in the following scene, which opens a chapter called “A Red Light,” simultaneously approach the impressionism for which she is well known as well as the realism for which she is not.
Not ten minutes had elapsed since the rowboat had headed out to sea when we heard an airplane engine. Both the light in the bay and the distant red light stopped signaling each other. Flares leapt from a large ship into the sky, streaks of fire searching for the airplane. It all ended with several explosions, followed by tongues of fire that licked the sky. The rowboat did not return and the sound of the plane faded away.
Historians such as Paul Preston help us connect the dots of airstrikes and famine. “As the advance continued,” he writes about the year 1938 in The Spanish Civil War,
the major urban centres of the Republican zone were flooded with refugees. Inevitably, hunger took its toll on morale and solidarity. Suffering was intensified by the steady rhythm of air raids on towns with little anti-aircraft artillery and infrequent fighter cover. These problems were most severe in Catalonia.
Rodoreda wrote War, So Much War while living in the small town of Romanyà de la Selva, an hour-and-a-half drive up the coast and inland from Barcelona. Though the Catalonian countryside might sound like an idyllic backdrop for a pen and a notepad, for Rodoreda it was, in many ways, the ground zero of the Spanish Civil War. By the start of the war in 1936, four of every five Spaniards still lived in the countryside. Though it’s often remembered for the struggles over cities, especially Madrid and Barcelona, the Spanish Civil War was largely fought in open fields and small towns. Rodoreda’s novel plumbs the depths of how a teenager copes with being prematurely thrust into maturity. But it also unsettlingly reorients our eyes toward the countryside — the unidentifiable epicenter of the war — in order to tell a story unfamiliar to most of us yet terrifyingly familiar to the many who lived through it.