Although most of Mercè Rodeoreda’s novels have been translated and published in English, and although she’s become one of—if not the—most important Catalan writers of the twentieth century, it still feels like her work is greatly overlooked in this country. Which is a shame, since her writing is fantastic, and would greatly appeal to readers of Virginia Woolf and the like.
Along with The Time of the Doves, A Broken Mirror was the Rodoreda novel most recommended to me during a recent visit to Barcelona, and with good reason. This novel is a sweeping family saga, covering three generations, and a slew of important historical events, including the Spanish Civil War. In terms of the plot, the book is interesting enough, containing all necessary soap opera aspects, such as illegitimate children, incest, hidden secrets, financial scheming, and the like, all told in a very compelling way, drawing the reader into the world built around Teresa Goday, a pretty, young woman who marries a wealthy old man. Her children and grandchildren populate the novel and infuse it with memorable characters, conflicts, and events, one of the most remarkable being the haunting chapter in which one of the children drowns.
In contrast to most family epics, this book is only a couple hundred pages, as Rodoreda foregoes lengthy expository passages in favor of a more direct writing style that gets to the heart of the matter in a way that’s not entirely dissimilar from the writings of Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras. And it’s the stylistic advancements Rodoreda makes as the narrative develops that is most impressive about this book.
Split into three distinct parts, the family’s disintegration runs in parallel to the style in which it’s written, moving from a time/style of Victorian-like elegance, to a more modernist period, before concluding in a more fragmented, postmodern style. This development is strikingly evident in comparing the opening of the book with its conclusion.
As previously mentioned, it opens with an air of elegance:
Vicenc helped Senyor Nicolau Roviera into the carriage. “Yes, Sir, as you wish.” Then he helped Senyora Teresa. They always did it that way: first he, then she, because it took two of them to help Senyor Nicolau out again. It was a difficult maneuver, and he needed a lot of attention.
The end has a different feel entirely:
A few days later other shadows came to cut down the trees and to raze the house. Soon they saw by the trunk of the chestnut tree a disgusting rat, with a head that had been gnawed on, surrounded by a bunch of greenish flies.
In my opinion, the best novels are the ones that develop in complicated and interesting ways, challenging the reader’s expectations. Rodoreda’s book does just that. This novel is a true artistic accomplishment, and at the risk of writing in jacket-copy speak, I have to say that this is a true modern classic that deserves a much wider audience.
A Broken Mirror
by Mercè Rodoreda
translated from the Catalan by Josep Miquel Sobrer
University of Nebraska Press
218 pp., $24.95 (pb)
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