Myths, Rituals, Fears in Death in Spring [Two Month Review]
Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast I join Brian Wood, Meg Berkobien, and Anastasia Nikolis to talk about the opening section of Death in Spring, the first Rodoreda novel that Open Letter ever published. To preface that conversation (which is a lot of gushing over her prose and ideas, along with some solid historical information), I thought I’d break out some aspects of Part I.
If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.
This week’s podcast—the first to dig into Rodoreda’s final novel, Death in Spring—is one of the most informative ones we’ve recorded to date. This isn’t to dismiss anything that came before (I love all my baby podcasts equally), but given Meg Berkobien’s background both as a translator and academic, she was able to bring the knowledge. You’ll have to listen to the whole thing to get all the goods, but here are a few choice bits that provide some background.
First things first, although this book was published posthumously, a few years after her passing, it’s by no means incomplete. There’s a mention on the Mercè Rodoreda Foundation website about how she submitted it for a literary prize back in the 1960s. It lost, she was greatly disappointed, she spent twenty years refining and honing it. That’s committment! And god damn does it show. This is one of the most carefully crafted novels I’ve ever read. No word is out of place (special shout-out to Martha Tennent), every image is layered throughout, every sentence feels twice as long as it is. This book is magical. So, although it was “unfinished” in the sense that she never approved the final proofs, but it’s not incomplete. It’s a full novel with a satisfying ending. As you’ll see.
One of the first things you’ll notice is that the village in which the novel takes place is unlike any village you’ve ever visited. Outside of time, home to a very unique set of myths and rituals, this place is a bit bewildering and disturbed. (Or a slightly exaggerated and twisted version of the myths and rituals in our lives?) Although the geography doesn’t seem nearly as unsettled, the layout of the village can be hard to visualize. But, thanks to Mercè (via Meg), we have this sketch of the village:
There’s a lot more that could be said about the background to this novel, but I think that’s best left to the podcast. Also, I kind of want to provide a bit of an overview to this section, but, well, I’m afraid that it will scare some of you off since it will sound absolutely batshit. Still, it can be useful for understanding the set of quotes below, so here goes:
In part one we’re introduced to our main character, a fourteen-year-old boy who lives in a village that is bound by strange beliefs and rituals. One of those rituals involves what happens to a dying body—something that the boy sees firsthand in the opening pages of the novel when his dad passes away. Freed from his parents, he serves as the reader’s lens onto the village in which he lives. In this first part, a lot of the world building is set forth. We learn about some of the major characters (the Blacksmith, the stepmother, Senyor), and some of the annual events that organize the lives of the villagers. At the start of this section, a bee is following the boy, at the end he crushes a bee. That happens as well.
As you can probably tell, the plot itself—though there, though compelling—is secondary to the way in which Rodoreda creates this almost alien environment. Although “world building” is a term usually used more in connection with Game of Thrones than modernist literature in translation, it’s very apropos here, for this part.
Rather than ramble on about this, I want to give you a taste of Rodoreda’s writing, which is absolutely phenomenal. And to tie her prose to the idea of world building, I’d like to look at three things that run throughout this section: myths, rituals, and fears. I’m more or less just going to piece together quotes from the book that fit into those respective categories. This will also give you an immediate sense of how weird this book is, and will probably (hopefully) make you want to read it. It’s wild! There’s nothing quite like Death in Spring and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.
This post and these lists will likely serve as building blocks for trying to create a larger understanding of what Rodoreda’s up to in this book as we go along. Not that there’s a single reading or way to understand this book—not by any means. The ways in which interpretations of images and motifs shift throughout the novel is one reason why this is so rich, so engrossing, and so lasting. Let’s dig in.
The old men explained that the low wind on Maraldina blew through the brush when no one was on the mountain. It carried souls that wandered the mountain with the sole purpose of creating fierce winds whenever we went in search of powder, rendering our work more arduous. The wind was telling us that ours was a senseless job, something that was better left undone. Souls have no mouths, so they spoke to us through the voice of the wind.
Souls and shadows show up a lot in this book. Usually tied together. Shadows take on a real physical presence in this novel, even if it is a presence that works on the edges of existence. They’re also responsible for a lot of the beliefs held by the villages, including this creation myth:
On a slope, man met shadow and they never parted. They established the village. The man, the shadow by his side, planted the first wisteria. But that’s not exactly how it was. A long time ago when the oldest of the old men in the village was young, he witnessed the birth of everything. The village was born from the earth’s terrible unrest. The mountain was cleaved and it collapsed into the river, scattering the water through the fields. But the river wanted to flow with all of its water gathered together and began burrowing beneath the crumpled mountain, emptying it little by little. The river never rested until all the water could flow happily together again, although at times it grew furious when it hit the rock ceiling. They say that one night, not at the bottom of the slope, but on the ground, on the rocks hurled from the cliff, the moon showed two shadows joined at the mouth. And it rained blood. That is how it all began.
Yep. As Meg mentions on the podcast, Rodoreda was very interested in cosmogony, which is quite evident in this book. There’s one more myth that I want to share—one that also crosses over into the section about the village’s rituals:
Near the canes where I was hiding, a group of dirty, disheveled women were sitting on the ground away from the fire, their eyes blindfolded. They were the pregnant ones. 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. They said a woman fell in love with every man she saw, and the longer she was pregnant, the faster she fell in love. So, what with women falling in love and children looking, what shouldn’t happen, happened.
This is an example of how these unusual beliefs—how genetics are influenced by love—end up creating a series of rituals that keep this society functioning. In this case, all pregnant women are blindfolded, which, though cruel and misguided (although some flat-earther out there would probably buy into this “science”), is not as violent and messy as what happens when you die.
Again, I don’t want to give away too much (read the book!), so I’ll just quote this passage about what happens when someone is dying and why without any larger context:
Don’t kill him, shouted the cement man. The mortar trough, filled with rose-colored cement, lay at this feet. Don’t kill him before he has been filled. They pried his mouth partially open, and the cement man began to fill it. First with watery cement so it would slide far down inside him, then with thick cement. When he was well cemented, they stood him up and put him back inside the tree. They replaced the cross and left to prepare the Festa. [. . .] I would end my days locked in that tree, my mouth full of cement that had been mixed with crimson powder, my entire soul within. Because, you see, the blacksmith used to say that with the last breath, without anyone realizing, your soul flees. And no one knows where it goes.
Cement to keep your soul in. Otherwise maybe it will be part of the fierce winds that make the search for powder more difficult. OK. Got it. And speaking of that powder, the men and boys gather this special pink powder every spring so that they can repaint all of the houses in the village. Every year. Like clockwork. As if it’s part of nature.
For a funeral Festa, they killed horses and pregnant mares. First, they ate the soup, then the horse or mare, and then a morsel—but only a small piece because there wasn’t much to go round—of the little ones the mares were carrying inside them. They made a paste with the brains; it helped digestion.
If you think that’s gross, wait till you read about the stepmother snacking on balls of fat . . .
Most, if not all, rituals exist because a group is afraid of what would happen if they don’t perform the ritual. Their mythic beliefs contain a bit of danger (don’t let the souls out!), so they create a particular set of actions to stave off the threat. They’re afraid of something.
There are a variety of normal fears sprinkled throughout the first couple parts of this book, but one thing that I want to track as we read and talk about this is the role of Senyor. Here’s how he’s introduced:
All of the houses were pink except one: the house that belonged to Senyor. He lived at the top of the small mountain that was cleaved by a cliff and overlooked the village, protecting and menacing. The cliff, topped by Senyor’s house, was covered with ivy that blazed in autumn and died soon after.
Innocent enough, I suppose. But then there are a few lines that, taken together, bring in a slightly more ominous tone:
When I had finished planting the grass, I thought again about Senyor’s house. I could see the side of it, the side without windows. It was topped by a spire. I could see Senyor, in my thoughts, coughing and eating honey, waiting always for the river to carry away the village. [. . .]
When we burned [the leaves], we would look up because Senyor’s head would appear through the long, narrow, middle window, and we would stick out our tongues at him. He would remain motionless, as if made of stone, and when the blue smoke disappeared, he would close his window, and that was it until the following year.
We’ll see more of Senyor soon enough, but I think I’ll leave it there for now. This is a much easier book to talk about (just wait till you hear the podcast) than it is to write about. Granted, I’m sort of holding back because part of the joy of reading this first section is finding yourself in a strange new world that you slowly come to understand—something I don’t want to take away from anyone. But even putting that aside, there’s just so much here. So many approaches to take. In future weeks, I hope to get more into the actual craft of her sentences and paragraphs, talk a bit more about how an element (like the bee in this section) is introduced early on and then weaves through the chapter accruing significance as it goes along. There’s also the issue of what sort of bildungsroman this really is, and if there’s a different world that this village maps on to (such as Franco’s Spain).
This is a good start though—especially if you listen to Thursday’s podcast. That really puts things in motion.