This review actually appeared online a couple months ago, but National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward’s piece on Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring made it onto “All Things Considered” last night.
I personally think Death in Spring is one of the most unique, and interesting books that we’ve published, and it’s fantastic that this is getting such great publicity. This is available at better bookstores everywhere, and through our website.
Additionally, this is part of our First 25, a collection of the first 25 titles we published, available for
$200 $175. (Just enter “FIRST25” at checkout to receive the $25 discount.)
And to whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt from Death in Spring:
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 by 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 emptied of my nuisance—would begin to rage and be transformed into wind that blew furiously, like the winter wind that nearly carried away houses, trees, and people. I had sought the broadest part of the river, the farthest from the village, a place where no one ever came. I didn’t want to be seen. The water flowed, sure of itself, confident with the weight that descended from mountains, snow and fountains escaping the shadows through holes in rocks. All the waters joined together for the delirium of joining and flowed endlessly, the land on both sides. As soon as I had passed the stables and the horse enclosure, I realized I was being followed by a bee, as well as by the stench of manure and the honey scent of wisteria that was beginning to blossom. The water was cold as I cut through it with my arms and kicked it with my feet; I stopped from time to time to drink some. The sun, filled with the desire to fly, was rising on the other side of Pedres Altes, streaking the white winter water. To trick the bee that was following me, I ducked under the water so it would lose me and not know what to do. I knew about
the obstinate, seven-year-old bees that possessed a sense of understanding. It was turbid under the water, like a glass cloud that reminded me of the glass balls in the courtyards beneath the strong wisteria vines, the wisteria that over the years upwrenched houses.
The houses in the village were all rose-colored. We painted them every spring and maybe for that reason the light was different. It captured the pink from the houses, the same way it took on the color of leaves and sun by the river. Shut inside in winter, we made paintbrushes from horsetails with handles of wood and wire, and when we had finished them, we put them away in the shed in the Plaça and waited for good weather. Then all of us, men and boys, would go to the cave on Maraldina in search of the red powder we needed for the pink paint . . . When we returned to the village, we would mix the red powder with water to make pink paint that winter would erase. In spring—bees buzzing about, blooming wisteria hanging from houses—we painted. And suddenly the light was different. [. . .]
I decided to stroll through the soft grass, up the incline; at the end of the slope the tree nursery appeared from behind some shrubs. The seedlings had tender trunks and no leaves; but all of them would carry death inside them when they were transplanted in the forest and grew tall. I walked among them, and they looked like objects you only see when asleep. I stopped at the entrance to the forest, at the divide between sun and shadow. I had seen the cloud of butterflies earlier. The trees in the forest were very tall, full of leaves—five-point leaves—and, just as the blacksmith had often told me, a plaque and a ring were attached to the foot of each tree. There were thousands of butterflies, all white. They fluttered around anxiously; many of them looked like half-opened flowers, the white slightly streaked with green. The ground was carpeted with old, dry leaves and a rotten odor rose from beneath them . . . I lay down under a tree and watched the cloud of butterflies bubble among the leaves. I looked at them through a web of leaf nerves until I was tired, and as soon as I let it fall, I heard footsteps. [. . .]
The steps stopped. Everything was quiet. As I strained to listen, I thought I could hear someone breathing. I felt a weight in the middle of my chest from listening and thinking I heard something: the same ill feeling as when they locked me in the cupboard for hours, the village deserted, and I would wait. This was the same. Nothing had changed: the leaves were the same, and the trees and butterflies, and the sense that time inside the shadow was dead. But everything had changed. [. . .]
The man who was approaching carried an axe on his shoulder and a pitchfork in his hand. He was naked from the waist up, his forehead smashed in. His face had been disfigured by the rushing river, and he was unable to close his eyes because the skin on his forehead was poorly attached. His red, shrunken skin was pulled tight, always leaving a slit in his eyes. He had patches of black hair on his chest, his was body sunburned. [. . .]
With his axe he began making a cross on a tree trunk; he had marked it with a stone, top to bottom and side to side. He worked mechanically, and after a while he dropped to his knees and began to cry. I held my breath. Still crying, he stood up, spit in his hands, and rubbed them together. The bee buzzed in and out of the flower. As the axe cut the trunk, you could see the line begin to emerge . . . The tree was as wide and as tall as a man, and I noticed the seedcase inside. It looked slightly green in the green light of the forest, the same color as the tree trunks in the nursery. The man poked the seedcase with the pitchfork, first on one side, then the other, until it fell to the ground. Smoke rose from the gap left in the tree. The man put down the pitchfork, wiped the sweat from his neck and rolled the seedcase to the foot of another tree . . . Then he sat on the ground and looked in the direction of the setting sun, at the butterflies.
Many of the leaves on the low branches were partially eaten away, others merely pierced by little holes. The caterpillars never stopped chewing, as they prepared to become butterflies. The man looked up with eyes he could not completely close. The air became wind. The man turned around, picked up the iron plaque, and looked at it as if he had never seen it before. He rubbed a finger over it, following the letters, one by one, until finally he stood up, seized the pitchfork and axe and headed toward the entrance to the forest, the axe on his shoulder flashing from time to time between the low-lying leaves. He came back empty-handed; and as if everything were going to begin again, the bee returned and entered the flower and the man approached his tree. He was weeping. He entered the tree backwards. . . . I was frightened. Frightened about the resin bubbling all alone, the ceiling of light hidden by leaves, and so many white wings flapping. I left, slowly at first, backing away, then I started to run, as if pursued by the man, the pitchfork, and the axe. I stopped by the edge of the river and covered my ears with my open hands so I wouldn’t hear the quiet. I crossed the river again. On the other side I left behind the odor of caterpillar-gorged leaves and encountered the fragrance of wisteria and the stench of manure. Death in spring. I threw myself on the ground, on top of the pebbles, my heart drained of blood, my hands icy. I was fourteen years old, and the man who had entered the tree to die was my father.
Over at NPR, Jesmyn Ward has a really nice write-up of Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring:
When a friend gave me Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, he told me it would blow my mind. Ten pages in, I doubted his claim.
The book begins when the narrator, a 14-year-old boy from a small mountain village, slips into a cold, sometimes savage river to escape a bee. His swim is interspersed with descriptions of his isolated community, with its pink painted homes and wisteria vines that “over the years, upwrenched houses.”
Rodoreda’s prose, even in translation, is bold and beautiful, but structured into short chapters and flashbacks. The effect is impressionistic, truncated and frustrating. I couldn’t orient myself in the narrative.
And then I surrendered.
Sure, I’m 125% biased, but Death in Spring is damn amazing. Rodoreda is one of the greats of the twentieth century. This novel, Time of the Doves, her Selected Fiction are all incredible.
But I’m going to digress for a moment and hate all over the NPR commenters on this post.
When this first went up, three separate people wrote in to complain that there was no “SPOILER ALERT”:
It would be really good if you posted a SPOILER ALERT. I unwittingly read something about the novel that probably should have been read only in the novel. I continued to read, thinking that would be the last spoiler, but it wasn’t. I only got past learning that his father was killed in a very unusual way when it appeared I was going to get more details from the book. I doubt you can do a rewrite but can you post a spoiler alert~? :o] Thanks~!
OK, so now, there is a “SPOILER ALERT” warning at the top of the page, but seriously, WTF? Some readers can be so god damn annoying. Yeah, the narrator’s dad dies, “in a very unusual way.” On page 15. And even if you only read books for the simple plot points (hey—you should check out this John Locke guy, he’s probably right up your alley), then wouldn’t it really be spoiled if you knew the unusual way in which he was killed? Whatever. These people piss me off.
And I know that’s wrong, and I should feel guilty about it, but they reduce books to the most basic of components and try and strangle actual conversation about literature because if you happen to mention anything, you’ve “ruined the surprise.” GAARRRRGGGGHHHH!
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .