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'War, So Much War' a Catalan Master Novelist's Grown-Up Fairy Tale

“War, So Much War” by Mercè Rodoreda (trans. from Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent) (Open Letter)

By Miriam M. Barnum, Crimson Staff Writer

Many classic elements make appearances in Mercè Rodoreda’s “War, So Much War”: a journey, a castle, a mirror, a beautiful girl, a crone in a forest cottage. Then again, every coming-of-age story is something like a fairy tale—a story of transformation, of innocence encountering evil. Rodoreda successfully weaves an intricate allegorical examination of evil, both beautiful and disturbing, without the simplistic moralizing of many fairy tales.

Rodereda begins with the story of one young man but soon expands to a masterful description of many people struggling against the horrors of modern life. Adrià Guinart, feeling bored and suffocated, runs away to join the army. He quickly flees the fighting and wanders in search of something he cannot name. He falls in love, witnesses evil, seeks vengeance, and ultimately returns home. Those Adrià encounters on this phantasmagoric journey tell their stories in brief vignettes, each beautifully wrought and intriguing. In hands less skilled, so many stories interspersed in the broader arc of Adrià’s tale might feel disjointed, but Rodoreda makes them flow, creating an immersive portrait of a people strained both by war and by more commonplace hardships. There is a man so fat he cannot walk, a quarreling couple, a bricklayer who lost his home to bombs, a barber avoiding the wife he no longer loves, and a man trapped in his own castle, robbed of his inheritance. Interacting with Adrià, they remain static; one glimpses their minimal development and transformation only through the stories they tell, small windows into colorful lives. Against these static, preserved lives, Adrià's character is refreshingly dynamic and self-reflective. Like the Biblical Cain—and bearing similar forehead mark—he feels himself cast out, compelled to wander. Yet he finds purpose in such dislocation: “everyone knows that Cain killed...” a fisherman tells him, “but some people regard him as someone who seeks knowledge, who never relents, who lets nothing stop him, who wants to know everything there is to be known.” In Adrià, Rodoreda strikes a delicate balance, a rich internal narrative of maturation and self-discovery juxtaposed with attentive narration that allows other stories to flow around Adria’s own.

Rodoreda's language is effortlessly precise, lavishing detail on everything—nature, dwellings, people, corpses. The tone, both fantastic and melancholy, glides between scenes. The effect is a sense of place simultaneously tangible and timeless. Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent's impeccable translation from the Catalan preserves this lyricism, and the pages are rife with delightful images—“a lion or giraffe-shaped cloud munching on the blueness of the sky”—and rich, effusive descriptions that pour forth as if unleashed by a broken dam—“pomegranates with their queenly royal crown that appears when their curly leaves fall, and the crown emerges sealing a hard green round box filled with diamonds as red as the blood when you cut yourself.”

Despite Rodoreda’s title, war remains in the background for much of the novel, almost—but never quite—forgotten. The war contorts the experiences of those Adrià encounters, but Rodereda makes it impossible to determine which leaves a larger imprint—war? Or poverty, religion, or everyday human love and sorrow? The book never witnesses true battle, only its aftermath: the bombed villages, the bodies in the river, the deserters, the amputee who abandons his fiancé, and the wailing woman hopelessly seeking her soldier husband. Yet Rodoreda subjects scenes of carnage to the same relentless attention to detail that pervades the rest of the novel: “Dead men who seemed to be asleep, on their sides, their legs drawn up; dead men with eyes open to the sky, dead men without legs, without arms… skeletons of soldiers with bones picked clean by the birds,” reads a brief excerpt of Adrià’s inventory of a battlefield, the calm presentation making the scene particularly unsettling.

This war seems apolitical, indefinable. A few facts, such as Rodoreda’s Catalan nationality, suggest that the war in question is the Spanish Civil war, but without this outside context it would be unclear who is fighting who, much less where and for what reason. This impressionistic picture of the war is a perfect reflection of the characters’ experiences. Adrià certainly has no idea what he is fighting for, much less the causes or overall shape of the conflict. The same holds for those he meets on his wanderings, who struggle halfheartedly to elucidate the reasons for the fighting: “It is to beat back the enemy, but…to our enemies, we are the enemy… Even if we win this war, it’ll be as though we’ve lost it, the way a war is set up, everyone loses.” This distance from the grand politics motivating the war makes Rodoreda’s condemnation all the more powerful. As the story is timeless, so is the criticism. There are no clear instigators of war; rather, the seeds of violence lie in everyone, even those who seem most innocent. Adrià watches two little girls eagerly torture an earthworm, screaming, “Another worm! Another worm! Let’s kill it! Let’s kill it!” Strangers sometimes arbitrarily treat Adrià with kindness, even after catching him stealing, yet other times they beat him and accuse him of kidnapping, though he has done nothing wrong.

This point about the internal origin of human wickedness is driven home in a jarring penultimate vignette that reveals the fate of Eva, Adrià's elusive love interest. If there is any flaw in the novel, it is that this scene, with its stark brutality, feels out of place in an otherwise beautifully nuanced and ambiguous tale. Yet this, too, is something of a strength—the scene shocks and horrifies, making it clear that human cruelty does not always remain shrouded in lyricism and surrealism: it can be deeply personal, not merely observed in the stories of others. “Would the remembrance of evil dissipate or would I carry it with me always, like a malady of the soul?” Adrià asks himself. Rodoreda’s ending etches evil deeply in memory, ensuring it will not be subsumed by the softer tone of the rest of the novel.

—Staff writer Miriam M. Barnum can be reached at miriam.barnum@thecrimson.com.

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