Death in Spring
by Merce Rodoreda
Reviewed by Ryan Michael Williams
Originally published posthumously in 1986, and now available in English translation for the first time, Death in Spring is the masterful and unsettling final novel by the acclaimed Catalan writer Merce Rodoreda. From the book's opening pages, Rodoreda immerses the reader in the strange, disorienting, and extremely disturbing culture of a village defined by the practice of gruesome rituals. When a villager nears death, friends and neighbors come to pour cement down his or her throat, hoping to prevent the soul from escaping the body. And once a year, young men draw straws to who among them must swim the length of the dangerously rocky waterway that flows underneath the surface of the village. Many drown while making the attempt; others emerge mutilated, their torn bodies and their faces disfigured by the rocks.
On its face, the premise of Death in Spring would seem to owe a great deal to Shirley Jackson's The Lottery -- which also portrays villagers engaged in ritualistic violence in the name of tradition. But while Jackson's story zeroes in on the mechanisms through which communities brutally suppress dissent in order to preserve the status quo, Rodoreda seems to distrust group power on a fundamental level. Jackson's stone-throwing villagers may have forgotten the meaning behind their ritual, but Rodoreda's murderers perpetrate their horrors with reasoned conviction. For her, the true terror lies not in blind obedience to tradition itself, but instead in the power of cultural practices to legitimize violence. The extent of human knowledge, Rodoreda suggests, has severe limits, and cultural traditions make matters worse by offering people an unfounded and dangerous sense of moral certainty.
The bleakness of Rodoreda's outlook stands in dramatic contrast to the gorgeous lyricism of her prose. In Martha Tennent's translation, her sentences are richly luxuriant, embodying the fecund beauty of spring in bloom while also admitting the imminence of death and decay. Throughout Death in Spring, horror often creeps in right on beauty's heels. "The villagers had gathered near the river, on the esplanade by the canes that whistled because it was windy," Rodoreda writes in one lovely passage, describing what would at first appear to be an idyllic scene. But not long after, she reveals what the villagers are actually up to: "They made a paste with the [horses'] brains," she writes. "They peeled them, boiled them, and chopped them to bits."
In Death in Spring, fleeting moments of contentedness and pleasant satisfaction always give way to violence and despair. Uncompromising, terrifying, and often stirringly beautiful, Rodoreda's book shares a brutal moral force with Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, but her dense, carefully wrought prose style more readily brings to mind the writing of Toni Morrison. These qualities sometimes make for difficult reading, but the novel's rewards are substantial. Rodoreda's accomplishment here amply demonstrates that her work deserves far greater attention in the U.S. than she has thus far received.