Prisoner of the Self
Catalonia, the home country of the revered mid-century writer Mercè Rodoreda, is a land of betweenness. Nestled in the crux of France and Spain, it is technically referred to as an “autonomous community” of the latter—in other words, depending on who you ask, perhaps its own country, perhaps not. As one of the most famous artists (alongside Salvador Dalí, who was also Catalan) to spring forth from this land of uncertain boundaries and identities, Rodoreda almost too perfectly represents this torn state of mind in her works of fiction, where characters and settings are constantly shifting between dreams and reality, apposite desires, nationalist claims, life and death. In her penultimate novel, originally written in 1980, War, So Much War, she demonstrates in phantasmagoric Technicolor brilliance the ways in which even such a cleft spirit can be a vessel for extreme beauty.
Born in 1908, Rodoreda came of age as an artist at perhaps the exact worst time for a person of her origins: with the rise of Franco’s dictatorship during World War II, Catalonia was severely repressed on every front, including, most devastatingly for a writer, the banning of its unique and irregular language, Catalan. Rodoreda thus subjected herself to voluntary exile in Geneva from 1939–75, the period in which she wrote the majority of her nine complete works of fiction. Her most well known novel, In the Time of Doves, was published in 1962 and, with a painful irony, came to be translated into thirty languages. While all of her work, especially in the early years, has an autobiographical bent, her final two novels address most directly the effects of war that plagued her identity as a Catalan and as a writer. War, So Much War, and her final work Death in Spring (1986) are both stories of wandering and exile, of characters making journeys that lead them from being lost to being more lost; wherein the definition of “home” is under close scrutiny and left largely open-ended. Yet for all of the ambivalence they portray about the security and truthfulness of one’s roots, the two novels project an undeniable power in what’s possible when one is loosed from a fixed identity.
War, So Much War funnels this representation of an exiled, yet focused, self through the fifteen-year-old first-person protagonist Adrià Guinart. His story is episodic, picaresque—a riff on Don Quixote but with a less bumbling, naïve hero and without an acerbically wise sidekick. We meet Adrià when the world as he knows it is crumbling around him; most of his family has died, and with the threat of World War II looming, he and his best friend, the “junkman’s son” Rossend, leave their village in the capitol city Barcelona to join up with the army. Their service, though, provides anything but an escape from the unremitting suffering they knew at home. Along their journey, Adrià meets a sad and diverse group of wounded, lonely, and grieving individuals. They are undoubtedly types of fabulist nature, but they’re also people with distinctive voices whose wails of sorrow have a unique timbre and vibrato, whose stories form a patchwork-quilt portrait of the many atrocities rendering the country a blood-stained rag. Here are portraits of a man Adrià saves from being hanged, a boisterous miller’s wife (not the only character to recall The Canterbury Tales), a hermit, a band of misfit workers, and, most significantly, a dying Senyor and his loyal caretaker called a “canary woman.” Their stories represent a spectrum of desperation and hope, but ultimately set a stage of ubiquitous suffering: a world where, according to one dying man, a meteor shower is just “stars weeping because we are at war. . . . They have grown weary of seeing so much death.”
This clear, appropriate example of the pathetic fallacy suggests an inescapably bleak worldview in War, So Much War, one that makes the novel almost at times read like something produced in the present-day—a post-apocalyptic struggle to survive and preserve the beauties of humanity. But instead, what Rodoreda does so skillfully to avoid that monotone grey palette is deploy nature as a fundamental mode of surrealist escapism. Throughout the novel, Adrià speaks metaphorically of himself as a tree: when he leaves home, he “watered himself” in order to grow deeper roots, and this process allows him to be fixed and sprawling at the same time. Indeed, his most significant moment of transformation arises when he reenters the woods, having disowned the inheritance bestowed upon him by the dying Senyor Ardèvol. Ardia knew him for mere days in life but far longer through the papers Senyor leaves behind—a record, in essence, that extends his own life beyond the corporeal and into the immortal realm of letters, and which also, coincidentally relays the details of his own flight from his country and ultimate exile. By refusing to enter into and perpetuate this written network of exile at the same time he literally moves out of society and into the wild state of the woods, Adrià imposes his own exile twice over. The second leg of his flight throughout the book, however, is noticeably unbalanced with the first. Indeed, here he’s retreating, but it’s also a retreat back home, and lacking the perhaps the expected “turn” in his outlook that would make the return journey somehow different or developmental.
To understand this direction of the narrative and Adrià himself, it’s useful to return to the tree metaphor. In the woods, he realizes “I had become two people: the one sweating with fright and the one who believed there was no reason to be afraid. . . . It seemed to me it was no longer I who was walking, but the trees, the entire forest. Had I entered the woods or had the woods entered me?” With this question, Adrià essentially accomplishes the goal he set out with—to become a tree—but by unexpected means and with unexpected results. This fantastical non-self is nonetheless forced to reconcile with the remnants of war—the “so much charred life” all around him and waiting for him at home. This is a home he must embrace, though, as he realizes suddenly that “I wished I were above rather than below, a tree hugging the earth, deeply rooted, with branches aloft, the sun overhead, blue skies overhead, the furious aliveness of the stars overhead.” Reality and nonreality, seemingly incompatible, are forced together inside a single being, leaving the reader—and Adrià himself—with a bitterly uncertain sense of what can be reliably thought of as “real” and his own feelings toward it. That Adrià’s newfound self-awareness occurs so close to the end of the novel leaves little room for interpretation or judgment. The novel thusly posits that such a state of uncertainty is inevitable—sheer fact in and of itself, and not to be disputed.
Indeed, all throughout the novel’s short, fragmentary, and episodic chapters, scenes that are literal dreams are relayed with the same tone and voice as scenes that are not dreams (there are, of course, certain moments that lay somewhere in between, where neither the reader nor the character can trust if what’s happening is real). And thanks to the new, extremely sensitive translation by Maruxa Relano and Martha Tennent, who also translated Death in Spring into English for the first time in 2009, the equilibrium of that tone is preserved beautifully, allowing the language itself to mimic the betweenness of the world Rodoreda writes about—its real state and its fictional depiction here. The most important dreamscapes involve a young woman Adrià meets named Eva, who appears to him first beside a river and then erratically in real life and in his dream life. Their chaste romance carries with it many interpretations: it makes sense given that he is only fifteen, after all, and in a literal state of transition between childhood and manhood. But for all he’s experienced, it seems unusual that his sexual development leans toward childhood, whereas everything else about him leans away from it. In these dreams, then—of nature and of love—we see Adrià occupying yet another set of intertwining liminal states, which allows for the tension in his character-driven story to be sustained at such a high pitch.
It would be easy to argue that, with neither external nor internal nature able to provide any sense of stability for him, Adrià is fated to live an itinerant life, unbound by even the inheritance of a stranger. There’s another piece of evidence to prove this, too, which we learn immediately on page one of the novel: Adrià has a birthmark on his forehead that several people note as none other than the mark of Cain. However, Adrià’s resemblance to this most famous of biblical exiles—forced to suffer for eternity after betraying and killing his brother, Abel, to win God’s favor—ends at the physical. Adrià has not killed his brother; he’s only watched his family, his three luminous sisters, and others he comes to care about fall at the hand of some unknown, crueler fate. As a result, it’s perhaps misguided to read War, So Much War in a purely fabulist framework. Those who suffer did not necessarily do wrong; the rules of the universe are nothing more than arbitrary occurrences coincidently in sync with man’s more evil ways. Even Rodoreda’s nature is by and large atheist—there’s no deity behind the fantastical environment or peoples of Catalonia; one could read their stories as existential, not moral, parables in the way that one might the work of Nietzsche or Camus. What we take away mostly, then, from this overwhelmingly honest work of fiction is less the power of this author’s imagination and capacity for human excavation—though that of course is there, and an artistic truth if there ever was one; it’s more the sense that there are some truths too painfully real to be relayed as such, and thus need a scrim of fiction to be bearable at all. Fashioning a dream-self, tree-self, or any non-self provides a necessary counterpart to what would otherwise be a state of constant incarceration: where “my prison is not these walls, but my own flesh and bones.”
Jennifer Kurdyla is an editor at Alfred A. Knopf in New York.