by Madhu Kaza
After I heard the recent news that Gabriel García Márquez had died, and after I'd read the obituaries and tributes, and reminisced about my own early encounters with his fiction, I knew it was time to read another great 20th century writer: and so this week I finally read Mercè Rodoreda's novel La plaça del Diamant. Rodoreda had become one of my favorite writers on the basis of a few short stories I'd read a couple of years ago in the collection My Christina. But I hadn't delved more deeply into her work. I knew that García Márquez had been a champion of her writing, and that a month after her own death in April, 1983 he wrote a moving tribute to her in the pages of the Spanish daily, El Pais.
In the piece titled, “Do you know who Mercè Rodoreda was?” García Márquez wrote of his grief at hearing the news of her death, not only because of his great admiration for her work, but also because outside of Spain her death had not been widely noted, and she hadn't received what he felt were her due honors. Rodoreda was born in Barcelona in 1908 and began publishing at a young age. After the Spanish Civil War, when the Catalan language was banned in public and the culture harshly supressed, Rodoreda went into exile. For nearly twenty years, until 1957 she published nothing. In 1962 she published La plaça del Diamant (translated as The Time of the Doves by David Rosenthal in 1981), widely regarded as her masterpiece and a masterpiece of Catalan literature. García Márquez wrote of her as an “invisible woman who wrote tough, beautiful novels in splendid Catalan.” Reading Rodoreda's work for the first time was as dazzling for him as his first encounter with the work of Juan Rulfo. Of The Time of the Doves, he remarked, “In my view, it is the most beautiful novel that's been published in Spain after the Civil War.”
The Time of the Doves narrates the experiences of Natalia, a young shop assistant in Barcelona in the bleak years before, during and just after the Civil War. Natalia is neither ambitious, nor assertive. At the beginning of the novel she goes to a dance only because, as she says, “It was hard for me to say no if someone asks me to do something.” It almost seems that Natalia marries the carpenter Quimet for the same reason; at the dance he announces that by the end of the year she will be his wife, and shortly thereafter, with little resistance, Natalia breaks off her previous engagement and marries him.
For all of Natalia's submissiveness, she is also keenly alert to life. She delights in ordinary things. One night as she is running down the street she notices “the windows full of silent things like inkwells and blotters and postcards and dolls and clothing on display and aluminum pots and needlepoint patterns…” When her mother-in-law asks her if she likes working in a pastry shop she responds with an enthusiastic “yes” and explains that she loves curling the ends of ribbons with scissors and adds, “what I looked forward to most was the holidays so I could make lots of packages and hear the cash register ring and the bell above the door.” “You're kidding,” responds the mother-in-law. But, although Natalia may be child-like, such pleasures reveal her sensitivity to the world around her. It is an ungrandiose sensitivity and one without expectation. She accepts the limitations of her life and finds what beauty there is in it.
Natalia is not without her own opinions, but within the patriarchal confines of her marriage they matter little. When she tells him that she dislikes Gaudi's buildings, Quimet, her brutish and controlling husband, tells her that her duty as a wife is to like everything he likes. Quimet, to her irritation, gives her the nickname Colometa, meaning little dove or little pigeon. Later, he begins to collect pigeons on their rooftop and in their apartment. Natalia, kept inside like one of these pigeons, is overwhelmed by the animals and eventually finds a way to get rid of them. Yet she doesn't protest the basic conditions of her life. She tells her friend Julieta that she has no time for fantasies of love or a different life: “Everything was over for me and all I could expect was sadness and headaches.” When the Civil War brings hunger, joblessness, death and unrelenting misery to her life, she knows she must do whatever it takes survive. And survival means muting her own feelings even further. She says, “I had to make my heart like stone. I had to be like a cork to keep going because if instead of being a cork with a heart of stone I'd been like before, made of flesh that hurts when you pinch it, I'd never have gotten across such a high, narrow, long bridge.”
The Time of the Doves is an incredibly sad book about the costs of war. Even more deeply, it is about the costs of being a sensitive, young, working class woman without any prospects in the world. Natalia makes some very dark choices in the novel when survival seems impossible. Although some readers have wished that she were more assertive and less resigned to her life, I find her to be one of the more sympathetic characters I have come across in literature. She is Colometa, the subdued wife living a claustrophobic, difficult life; but she is also, vitally, Natalia, who loves walking in the street, looking in shop windows, watching people, noticing the reflections of birds in puddles. Rodoreda noted that if Natalia differs from other great characters like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, it's primarily because of her poverty. Natalia is one of the many ordinary, powerless people in the world who are given little to expect or hope for from life but who are, nevertheless, intensely alive.
In a prologue to The Time of the Doves Rodoreda wrote, “I want to affirm vehemently that The Time of the Doves is above all a novel of love.” García Márquez once said of his own work that if a writer writes the same book over and over all of his life, then the book he had been writing was a book of love. Although Rodoreda's fiction is sometimes fantastical or surrealist, what she shares in common with García Márquez has little to do with magic. Nor is it a particular prose style. Rodoreda's style varied, but in The Time of the Doves, the voice is flat and works through stream of consciousness. Still, it's easy to imagine why García Márquez admired Rodoreda so much. He wrote that when he met her she seemed like a copy of her literary characters. She told him that what she found most interesting in all of his work was the rooster belonging to the colonel to whom no one writes. He told her that in her work what he loved best was the raffle of the coffe pots in The Time of the Doves. Both writers were drawn to the sensuality of common objects and everyday life. They each rejected intellectualism, and wrote with a great sympathy for ordinary people. Evident in both writers is how much they loved their characters, however downtrodden, unsophisticated, and imperfect they may have been. This love for such characters was also a love for life.