An experimental review of War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda
Translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent
Open Letter Books, November 2015
The critic’s father had been dead a little more than four years. As she worked on her review of Mercè Rodoreda’s War, So Much War, she found herself thinking about him, as if something had been shaken loose. She started writing in her journal more than usual. A lot of the entries ended with raw feelings about him, even though he hadn’t been on her mind when she started writing. He used to read the articles she published and send funny, supportive emails with quirky life advice. “This part is good but do you really believe this stuff? I hope not. Aren’t you worried people might think you do?”
The critic shook her head, put on some music and lay down on the floor, trying to bring together her thoughts about Rodoreda. The new book was brief, like Rodoreda’s other novels, but impossibly good, maybe the best, rivaling La plaça del diamant, best known in translation as The Time of the Doves. She’d read that and Rodoreda’s other books available in English. Camellia Street, Death in Spring, A Broken Mirror, several short story collections. The back cover of the new book said, “Despite its title, there is little of war and much of the fantastic in this coming-of-age story, which was the last novel Mercè Rodoreda published during her lifetime.” Little of war? To the critic’s mind every sentence was driven by Rodoreda’s experience in exile after Franco tried to purge Catalan culture from Spain, though she did return home, after Franco died in 1975; she died in 1983. Sure, there were short passages in the novel that seemed a bit like fantasy, but only because war is a fantasy writ large with young people’s blood.
Up front Rodoreda had supplied some epigraphs. “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” Francisco de Goya. “A great ravel of flights from nothing to nothing.” D.H. Lawrence. Eloquent hints about monsters and nothing to nothing, then a gory, devastating novel in which poetry and sentimentality toy with you, and the teenaged boy who narrates, making you wonder how the poor soul will ever recover from the beatings, hunger, and crushing grief. The story triggers the desire to see him survive. A boy amid humanity at its worst. But as we watch him meet dozens of caring and heartless people scene to scene, Rodoreda generates simple yet expansive questions about fate and suffering and hope, forcing you to decide whether you believe romantics or realists are best-suited to evade doom in this world.
The boy’s name is Adrià Guinart. He lives alone with his mother. She has a carnation field, which they work to survive. At school he learns about Sacred History from a set of pictures. Tables of the Law, the Great Flood, the Crucifixion. “On the days when the Crucifixion print was shown, as soon as I reached the field of carnations, I would race from one end to the other, and stand on tiptoes, reaching up as far as I could to hear the stars whispering, poor thing, poor thing, he doesn’t have wings.” His father, who used to drive a train, died years ago. His sisters are dead, too. When he sneaks out of the house to join his friends and leave for the war front, he has a vision. “My father stood at the door watching me, holding me—still a little boy—in his arms.” Time’s warning, that brief, out-of-body experience of a parallel reality doesn’t slow him down. He’s fifteen, excited to be out on his own for the first time. He finds his friends and they drive toward the war. “Exhaustion muddled my mind, and I saw my father waving goodbye at the foot of a floating house with a facing of bright, gleaming tiles and blue lampposts, and moonlight streaming through the leaves, until everything began to spin: Father, father’s hand, gleaming house, moonlight, blue lampposts, lances of light against the sky. I was asleep when I reached the front.”
In the next dozen pages he’s beaten by soldiers twice and saves a man who’s hanged himself. It gets much worse from there. He never holds a gun. Never ends up giving a damn about the war. Forgets about his mother. Everyone keeps telling him to go home. He can’t. He can barely keep escaping the rich or poor lowlifes thriving in the chaos. He also falls in love for the first time. Love will save me, or so he probably thought.
One night the critic’s mother called to ask if she had any guesses about the password to her father’s computer, which her mother had only now decided to access; he’d kept a journal on it and told everyone during his illness that it was fine to read the journal after he was gone. Dramatic. But Dad. She and her mother spent half an hour trying to guess the password until the critic picked the right one. She heard her mother type it in; she was silent when the code worked then said oh my god loudly with a laugh. “Are you sure you want to read all that stuff?” Her Mom said that if she didn’t like something she’d stop and just skip ahead. Not to worry.
The critic’s father had spent decades in the army. She remembered how, right after starting college, she’d joined ROTC without telling anyone, but didn’t formally sign up; that step would happen later, if she passed initial muster. When she told her father, she expected he’d be proud. Instead he asked why she wanted to join. She told him it would help pay tuition. “Before you decide,” he said, “ask yourself, ‘Do I really want to be in the U.S. Army?’” A simple question, but one she hadn’t considered. And she knew the answer. It had kept her out of any number of wars.
After he died she didn’t dream about him. Her mother and sister did. She envied that and wondered if it meant her grief was poisoning her in some strange way. But at last a dream about him came, a few days after she helped her mother unlock his computer. He was walking past her on the other side of a grocery store. She went over to get his attention but he acted guilty or embarrassed for some reason she didn’t understand. She followed at his side and grew frustrated with him, but kept quiet because it was a public place. Finally he stopped walking, turned his head slightly, as if he was doing something he shouldn’t, and said, “I love you. I’ll let you get some sleep now.” She woke up. She didn’t move, just lay still with her head on the pillow, eyes open, not liking what part of her mind was trying to make his words mean. A lot and nothing. She had wanted to dream about him, but not something as intense as this. She’d hoped her first dream of him might be a pleasant memory or something with a touch of love. Not this sense of visitation, speaking to her, knowing she was asleep and dreaming about him. Maybe it was just stress. Her mind relieving tension after writing in her journal so much, and guessing the password that had unlocked his words. That was it, she told herself, just her mind reaching out for something, not something reaching out to her. “We are all organized energy,” says one of the many madmen Adrià meets. “Each person is the mirror of the entire universe. Of God.”
“You’re too much in love,” Rodoreda had written in another book, a story collection. It was a phrase that’d been nagging the critic since she’d finished the new novel and tried to write a little. The first couple drafts were false starts. Because, the voice said, you’re too distracted, with half-love, with hope for love, but not the real thing. Fantasy. Love for a dead father, a dead Catalan author. Half-love for books, sentences, the dreams of the dead, the authors she wanted to see succeed, her mother and sister, her life thus far and what might lie ahead. Once upon a time there was a woman who wrote about the things that other people wrote. She survived as a writer, a near-writer, a person making the fiction of criticism, powered and ashamed by its (her own?) nature.
Rodoreda knew how love stories work on readers. Adrià, the boy lost at war, falls in love with a girl. He sees her standing naked by the river one day holding a pitchfork that she uses to push dead soldiers back into the current when they get stuck in the reeds. Eva. The first woman. You don’t want to know what happens to her. What Rodoreda does to her. She’s just a story prop. A character with a label, a name Rodoreda uses to make us imagine. She’s not real. Nevertheless, it hurt the critic when she thought about Eva’s fate.
They were just sentences, not people. You have to love their potential power though, you must if you want to get something out of the book. You have to love too much. Rodoreda’s sentences projected a sense of clarity; many critics marveled at her “precision.” With a few basic sentence structures she could achieve in a thousand ways what Lawrence Durrell tried with the four novels in his Alexandria Quartet, to create a book and a sensation of “standing above time.” In Rodoreda’s work the sentences’ motion depicts and guides thought with poetic tone and form, without signaling any intent to progress toward an orderly conclusion. She wasn’t much like Woolf, whose sentences have eyes and heart that want to cling to sequence and consequence. Rodoreda didn’t go in for bathos either, like the post-modernists’ tiresome campaign to mock social constructs. She killed people off simply, quickly, in half a sentence after bringing them to life over a hundred pages.
Her sentences reached back or out, if forward then not in a straight line, obliquely, so that the narrative was always being broadened rather than embellished, like a lens tracking back just a little to widen the shot, so that it seemed events were actually getting larger, as if being remembered again, afresh, like a new beginning. Her epigraph for her novel The Time of the Doves was a tiny quote from George Meredith. “My dear, these things are life.” Maybe that didn’t refer just to the scenes or details, preparing the body of a dead relative in bed at home, the species of flowers, watching as people love or kill each other. Maybe that tiny quote hinted at the delivery method for everything, too: the sentences. And it was due to the supreme talent of Rodoreda’s translators, Martha Tennent and Maruxa Relaño, and all the books David Rosenthal worked on before he died, just a year after Rodoreda did, that any of this musing was even possible. There was a hint of literary miracle in the whole thing.
To call Rodoreda’s work fantasy or dreamy seemed like marketing language, though, dismissive of the philosophical rigor involved, the poetic arrangements of her vision. These things were life, not a dream. Natasha Wimmer dubbed part of Rodoreda’s project “domestic existentialism.” For the critic it was less academic: Rodoreda’s was a language of survival, grief distilled into deadly hope. Hope: the quick sucking sound you make when you get the wind knocked out of you, sit up, and see the hoof coming down before it strikes you in the face. A hope so vital no one can survive it.
She wondered why she was so in love and so bothered by the little book. And like turning over a card she hadn’t noticed before, she got it: it was the way Eva died. It was monstrous, a brutal injustice, though in war such deaths are common for women. The critic hated Rodoreda for making her fall so deeply and simply in love with Eva right along with Adrià. “It’s too much. How will he go on?” she’d written in the margin on the page where Rodoreda killed Eva off. How will he survive? Why hadn’t her first thought been about Eva? Why pity the living? She immediately felt guilty for not lamenting Eva more directly. But just as quickly that relentless part of her mind, stuck like a remora to disbelief, piped up to say it didn’t matter because of course none of this ever happened. It was just a novel. War isn’t like that, the critic argued in her head. What does Rodoreda know? Fuck reading these sad, terrible books. But Adrià survives. Something like him survives. It felt like too much to bear and that made her adore Rodoreda and hate her—it was too much power for one writer to have.
During the months she’d read and re-read Rodoreda to prepare for the review, still not due for many weeks, that one phrase from one of her lesser short stories kept mocking her, in Rodoreda’s voice as she imagined it. “You’re too much in love.” A doctor had said that to another character. The pragmatic doctor wishing the world and its people would stop hurting themselves with their bad behaviors and intense emotions that only caused harm. Too much in love? Fine then. That was worth writing about. Love and desire as a survival tactic, the need for others, even if you’ll lose them mid-sentence one day, and not dream of them for years until some blessed, silly block of text sets your conscience free to imagine something spiritual’s afoot in the real world, the one where people write damnably good books in languages you don’t speak a word of. Language alone couldn’t truly chart her preparatory grief back when her Dad was sick, how her body and thoughts were chilled by worry about his day-to-day suffering, with pragmatic doctors doing what they could to keep him alive, while she dreamed of some half-perfect words of good-bye. Before death we say I love you as often as we can. After death we say I miss you. Now it seemed that some words bridge the before and after, drops of language siphoned from dreams. Leave me alone, Dad. Dad, come back.
One night before bed, she pictured which scenes might make it into the movie version of War, So Much War. What if she got to help make it? She could be a grip or set dresser. The director would order her one day not to tell the lead actor playing Adrià what she was doing because he wanted the kid to give an honest response. So on set the next day for the scene in a bombed-out Spanish town, where Adrià meets a woman walking around holding her dead baby, the critic is in charge of preparing the note that goes around a dead dog’s neck, just as Rodoreda wrote it. She scribbles Rodoreda’s words on a crumpled piece of paper, threads a string through it, ties it around the fake dead dog’s neck. Hours later she stands by the director as the actor playing Adrià walks through the fake devastation. She holds her breath, and the director beams in triumph as the actor reads the words and his face crumples with perfect, beautiful sadness. The woman with the dead baby in her arms walks by and the audience can see the note. “Follow this dog. He will lead you to me. I’m wounded.”
Matthew Jakubowski’s work has appeared recently in The Kenyon Review Online and Minor Literature[s]. His first experimental book review appeared in 3:AM Magazine and was recognized by 3 Quarks Daily with a 2014 Arts and Literature Prize, judged by novelist Mohsin Hamid. The second such review appeared in gorse, a Dublin-based literary journal. He can be found at http://matthewjakubowski.wordpress.com/ on on Twitter at @matt_jakubowski.