Well, Death in Spring is the most fabulously gruesome and disturbing book I’ve read in a while.
It’s the last novel by Spanish writer Merce Rodoreda, originally published in 1986 in the Catalan language, translated into English in 2009 and published by Open Letter books. The book is an allegory for life in Spain under the dictator Franco, and takes place in a village overrun by wisteria, undermined by a rushing river, swarmed by bees and girded with awful customs that deny the inhabitants all desire and dehumanize everyone they touch. The pregnant women wear blindfolds so they cannot see any men other than their husbands. A “prisoner” is kept and forced to neigh like a horse. Dying people’s throats are filled with rose-colored cement to trap their souls after death. The villagers are brutal and complicit, and the whole thing is overseen by “Senyor,” a crippled man living on the hillside above the village.
In the first section the main character watches a man commit a ritual suicide, chopping open a tree and climbing in it. The tree then seals itself around him with bubbling green resin. Every inhabitant of the village has a tree with their name on it. The boy describes it thus:
The trunk looked like a splayed horse. The tree was as wide and tall as a man, and I noticed the seedcase inside. It looked slightly green in the green light of the forest, the same color as the tree trunks in the nursery. The man poked the seedcase with the pitchfork, first on one side, then the other until it fell to the ground. Smoke rose from the gap left in the tree. The man put down the pitchfork, wiped the sweat from his neck, and rolled the seedcase to the foot of another tree. Some leaves were caught on it…. He was weeping. He stepped backwards into the tree.
Later the narrator tells us that, “I was fourteen years old, and the man who had entered the tree to die was my father.” After this event the villagers find out what happened, return to the tree, exhume the still-dying man and fill him with rose cement so his soul cannot escape. And then the boy develops a strange passionate affair with his stepmother, an odd, child-like woman only a few years older than him.
We never know, really, what the seedcases are for or what the nursery is for or why the villagers must visit the buttermilk fountain. The point, I thought, was to convey the horror of a society devoted to senseless violence and turned in upon itself, where the end goal—in so much as there is ever any goal in a totalitarian state—is to crush the inhabitants’ souls.
In this telling of the tale, too, the inhabitants create the system perhaps more than Senyor, the dictator. Here is a part when the hero prepares to swim under the village, a forced passage that often causes mutilation or death:
I remember the sound of water. I don’t know whether it was because of the women or the sound of the river, but I thought about two types of water. One good, one bad. They all wanted it. They had contrived to do it. They were bored and needed it to keep living. Everyone’s face bespoke a craving, although what they wished was not really clear to them; they just wished it at whatever cost. I never realized they had all joined together to do this to me: men, women—even the pregnant women—the old men from the slaughterhouse, the man in charge of blood, the faceless men….
In the metaphorical language of the book, the ‘good’ water is desire, greenness, but it is corrupted or impossible for these people. Even the protagonist succumbs:
From the damp sprouted a new-green stem, topped by a bud. The bud grew large, the green streaked with the color of crimson dust. One day I had curled up, waiting for the flower to blossom. It made a clicking sound when it opened and the flower released the leaves. I plucked it, and bitter, viscous water spurted from the stem. If you touched it and rubbed your fingers over your lips, you got sores. All of a sudden I realized what I desired: sorrow. The stones scattered in the mud were patches of sorrow.
It doesn’t seem like it’s his fault, more like his destiny. Though he does turn away from love (I think) at one crucial part near the end.
Here’s a last bit about water, as close as he comes to good desire, and a decent sum-up of the author’s project for the book:
Tenderness changed me into water and everything that fled from me was in that water. I don’t know why, I don’t know what those mornings were because no words exist for them. No. No words exist. They have to be invented.