1 February 10 | Chad W. Post

Over the next three weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.

Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Spain, Open Letter)

The other day, I had a really interesting conversation with David Del Vecchio and Lewis Manalo of Idlewild Books about covers for literature in translation. All the BTBA longlist titles are on display at Idlewild (rock on!) and it’s really interesting to take these all in at once.

One of the things David pointed out was just how dark all these books were. (Sidenote: I REALLY HOPE that one day he’ll write a long piece for us about all of his cover observations—all of us publishers could learn a ton from listening to a bookseller like David. I mean, we’ve seen Sessalee at B&N influence the look of more commercial fiction—pictures of hair anyone?—so it’s only cool that a hip, indie bookstore could help shape the look of translated titles.) I hadn’t really thought about the look of all these titles together—see, I don’t judge a book by its . . . actually, yes I do, we all do—but seriously, look at The Ninth, The Skating Rink, Confessions of Noa Weber, and, cough, Death in Spring, and the impression you get is that all of these books are bleak, dark, somewhat depressing, etc.

Personally, I think the Death in Spring cover kicks some serious design ass, but I can see how someone looking at a tree made of various bones might get the impression that the book is a bit morbid . . . But well, you know, in contrast to some of the other BTBA titles that might misrepresent (Memories of the Future looks awful mechanistic for such an insanely funny book), this one is pretty spot-fucking-on. The book opens with the narrator’s father trying to bury himself in a tree in order to avoid the village’s traditional death ritual . . . His attempt fails in brutal, disturbing fashion:

They started to shout. They shouted at my father who had little remaining breath and was clearly near his end. He was still alive, but only his own death kept him alive. They dragged him from the tree, laid him on the ground, and began beating him. The last blows made no sound. Don’t kill him, shouted the cement man. The mortar trough, filled with rose-colored cement, lay at his 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.

Welcome to Merce Rodoreda’s nightmare world.

To fans of her earlier works—especially The Time of the Doves, this is shocking and totally unexpected. But it does sort of fit an evolution of Rodoreda’s work. Doves is a more conventional story of a woman’s loves and losses during the time of the Spanish Civil War. It’s gorgeous and lush, and has something in common with Virginia Woolf’s writing. But then there’s A Broken Mirror, which chronicles the dissolution of a family in three distinct sections, each written with a different tone and sensibility, starting with a more Victorian feel, then turning modernist, and ending with a very fractured, post-modern section. And then comes Death in Spring.

Death in Spring is a very surreal, violent (even houses are “upwrenched”) novel that traces the life of a young boy, through whose eyes we witness the terrifying and incomprehensible rituals that shape life in the village. In addition to the cement-pouring ritual (which is freaky) and the burying people inside of trees bit, there’s also the annual “trip down the river,” in which one unlucky person has to float through the river running under the village to clear out any rocks blocking the water’s passage . . .

The book can be interpreted in several ways—as a metaphor for life under Franco, as a creepy bildungsroman, so on—but one constant is the beauty of Rodoreda’s prose, especially as she struggles to convey something that’s almost beyond words. (To be honest: I’m stealing some of the comments Erica Mena made about this book and all of the times “language fails” in the book.) Personally, I think this is one of the most important books Open Letter has published so far. I can envision scholars and readers debating this a hundred years from now—and studying Martha Tennent’s inventive translation.

So I’ll leave off with another passage that’s beautifully sad:

When they pulled the boy from the river, he was dead; they returned him to the river. Those who died in the water were returned to the water. The river carried them away and nothing was ever known of them again. But at night, at the spot where the bodies were thrown into the water, a shadow could be seen. Not every night. Not today or tomorrow, but on certain nights a shadow trembled. They said the shadow of the dead returned to the place where the man was born. They said that to die was to merge with the shadow. That summer, the shadow of the boy was clearly distinguishable. It was unmistakably him because he had been separated from one of his arms, and the shadow had but one arm. Struggling against the current, the shadow—which was only will, not body or voice—attempted to slip beneath the village. And as the shadow struggled, the prisoner neighed.

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