Monday, April 25, 2011

REVIEW: Merce Rodoreda's Death In Spring

"On this journey into death, 
I am beside myself in tremendous bliss,
For this allegiance has been made:

Shall my sins be absolved,
Washed away by the blood of the sacred lambs, 

yet I am not amongst the flock."
 --Hate Eternal, "Path to the Eternal Gods"

Upon reading my last post, I realized that I'd made three different shout-outs to John Darnielle. This is understandable-- the man's art is incredibly important to me --but, well, makes the set-up for this review kind of awkward. Here's the story:

I was at a Mountain Goats concert a couple weeks back with my girlfriend and a friend from school (They did like 90% of All Eternals Deck and "Maize Stalk Drinking Blood." It was awesome), and, a while after the show ended, John Darnielle came out to give out hugs and chat with fans and such, and, while we were talking about books, he exclaimed "Have you read Merce Rodoreda?! Death in Spring! It's amazing, she's Catalan, you'll love her." So I got a copy, and, well, dude was on the money.
He so often is.
This is an absolutely brutal and haunting book. There's a blurb on the back by Marquez about how much of an inspiration Rodoreda's writing and language was to him, and while that's high praise, this goes to places that Marquez fears to tread. One of the most frustrating things about Magical Realism, for me, is the way that it's often very whimsical and tongue-in-cheek. Even Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which is slim and bloody dagger of a book, doesn't really leave lasting wounds. Death in Spring  does. The "magic" part of its Magical Realism is less charming enchantments and more dark sorcery and blood sacrifice. Literally.

Death in Spring is about a small village (presumably in Spain), who practice constant, incredibly ritualistic violence towards each other. When a citizen is dying, their throat is filled with cement so that their soul will remain inside the dead body and they are sealed inside a living tree. Once a year, a man of the village must swim through the dark river that runs beneath the town, usually to be torn and bloodied by the rocks. And so on-- it's the story of a community whose only rules are rituals, sacrifices, and punishments.
"We will make literature Metal. Blacker than the blackest black, times infinity."
These rituals also give us one of my favorite things in the world: horrifying violence, described beautifully.
"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."
The novel is told from the point of view of a young man and chronicles his attempts to understand this world, to come to grips with the rituals. There's something of a striving for truth there-- he never specifically sets out to understand what they do, but as he explores the town the reader starts to make connections and try to figure out the causes and purposes behind the horror. As the pain builds upon itself you come to yearn for a moment of reconciliation, for some-- any --justification, but I'd caution you to remember how little madness in the real world is based on reason.
Seriously Spain, give us like one good reason.
It's tempting to read politics into Death in Spring, as Rodoreda was an exile from Franco's Spain. But it's not just a Fascist allegory-- the Senyor of the village, who we expect to be the powerful dictator who will tell us the reasons behind the blood, is just as powerless and blind as everyone else --it's a book about power. It's a book about how we take the evil parts and the mad parts of our society for granted and how brutality can become a tolerated part of life. Deeper than that, it's about ritual: the cleansing power of violence, the ablution of guilt that tradition can give to evil acts.

It's also about just beautiful, beautiful prose. Seriously, this is one of the most gorgeous books, purely on the basis of language, that I've ever read. Let me close with a passage that's not even my favorite, just par for the course for Rodoreda:
"And we ran back and forth, our hearts filled with fearful blood because we didn't know who was coming, from what direction, if there were many of them, or if it was just the one conjured up by the fear our voices awakened in us. They're coming, they're coming. ...each of us represented 'they' for the other, we never knew who they were-- they never arrived. When we emerged from behind the trunk and listened, there was nothing to be heard: only the breath of light and earth, and the air that dwelt on high."
 And then, like, immediately afterward there's an encounter with a corpse. It's a wonderful, wonderful book.
"Gracias,Jasper. If I weren't dead that would mean a lot."
Oh shucks, it ain't no thing, Merce.

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