Fresh air streamed in through the window. When the dining-room clock struck three, I rose and left without even washing my face and, you might say, with only the clothes on my back. I had taken some fifty steps when something made me turn around and glance back at the house. The moonlight fell full on it. My father stood at the door watching me, holding me–still a little boy–in his arms. It was the first night that I roamed alone through streets outside my neighbourhood. I ran. Goodbye carnations, adéu!
With this ghostly image of his deceased father holding his infant self, Adirà Guinart, the fifteen year-old narrator of Mercè Rodoreda’s poignant novel War, So Much War, turns his back on a fractious relationship with his mother and a life growing and selling carnations. He is seeking a life of adventure. Yet, as one must be careful what one wishes for, he is about embark on a journey that will leave him irrevocably changed, and sadly and wistfully mature for his age.
Although the place and conflict is never explicitly named, it is assumed that the setting is Catalonia, the author’s homeland, during the Spanish Civil War. But in truth the exact details do not matter, this is a novel about the wide sweep of war beyond the front lines, about the damage, destruction and despair that works its way into the landscape, the villages and the lives of the people who are often hard pressed to explain who or why they are fighting. Yet, the bleakness is, in Rodoreda’s hands, filtered through a surrealist lens that renders it at once engaging, wise and profoundly sad.
Idealistic and bored, our young protagonist leaves home to join the war effort, but he is quickly disillusioned with the soldier’s life, and runs away again, falling into a life that suits his temperament, that of the wanderer. Unfolding over the course of a series of short episodic adventures he encounters an array of tragic comic characters–the bereaved, the abandoned and the eccentric–who share their wisdom, offer him lodging or seek his assistance. Classic folkloric elements are present, including a strange castle, an enigmatic young woman, an ugly old hag, a hermit with a tale of hard earned humility and a mysterious benefactor with a haunted mirror.
But War, So Much War is more than an allegory or a fairy tale, there is something profoundly serious and unsettling beneath the surface. The narrative, unadorned and seductive in tone, fuses sensuous evocations of natural beauty with brutal images of suffering and death. The ground is worked to plant crops in one place, only to be dug to bury piles of corpses in another. Our hero approaches each task without question, claiming resistance to the more tangible horrors of death; fearing instead the unseen, phantasmagorical horrors that pursue him. But is there really a difference? In his world, reality blends with dreams, and the narrator treads a ground that gives away to as readily to natural beauty as to nightmare.
Even in romance, that line is readily crossed. Early on, Adirà falls in love with Eva, a free-spirited young woman. He is drawn to her most critically because she refuses to be held and restrained by anyone. As much as he admires that aspect of her character, a quality he also claims for himself, he begins to long for her as his journey moves, at least in spirit, toward home. Her ultimate fate is perhaps the most melodramatic, yet deeply tragic element of the entire tale.
The constant reminders of war–hunger, fear and confrontations with the stark face of human depravity–do not defeat Adirà, but their presence eventually closes in on him, working its way into his weary bones. At heart this pastoral novel is an existential coming-of-age story that leaves our hero enlightened but aged beyond his tender years. He is both a boy and an old soul at once. With so much disruption and young men lost to war, older men in particular seem drawn to his company. When a fisherman with who he has spent a couple of days invites him to stay on, become as a son to him, he explains:
My life is my own . . . A few months ago, I don’t know how many, I still had a pocket knife with a fork, spoon, corkscrew, and screwdriver that my father had given me, but I gave it away. And now the only thing I have is my own life. If I speak about it, it escapes, I lose it. He gave me a pat on the back, almost laughing as he did so. I know , I added, that all lives are more or less the same in the essentials. He thrust his head back and closed his eyes, leaving just a slit open to spy on whatever it was he wanted to see. Don’t make me laugh. What will you do, restlessly drifting from place to place? Do you want to end up sleeping on the street or in a church portico when you are an old man? I don’t care. I want to roam the world. Be from everywhere and nowhere.
For all its sadness, there is much wisdom in these pages. Rodoreda’s smooth, clean prose with its seamless flow between speakers without breaks or quotation marks, adds to the dreamlike, reflective feel of the narrative. For all the fairy tale elements that feature in Adirà’s wandering, the underlying current of his journey is marked by despair and hope. This is a novel that is not only timeless but, sadly, still very relevant today.
Mercè Rodoreda was born in Catalonia in 1908. Her native language, Catalan, was banned under Franco’s dictatorship, but she continued to write in the language throughout her career, even while living in exile following the Spanish Civil War. Today Catalan is spoken by only about nine million people and translations are critical to help keep the literature alive. Originally published in 1980, War, So Much War is translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent, and published by Open Letter.
* War, So Much War has been shortlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award.