on 5 October 2010
The second of three launch titles for Peirene Press, whose Beside The Sea I loved, is described as a Catalan modern classic. Published originally in 1985 it is now in its 50th edition but this translation by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell is the first into English. In a little over a hundred pages Barbal presents us with an entire life, that of Concepció - known as Conxa - and also describes a way of life that will be unfamiliar unless you happened to be a peasant farmer in the Pyrenees during the beginning of the last century (you didn't, did you?). Conxa narrates the book and tells us the story of her life from one upheaval to another. The fifth of six children she is sent to live and work with her childless aunt Tia in Pallarès as 'Someone had to go.' There she will live as their daughter and become their heir (the novel makes very clear the importance of legacy, as land passes through families and becomes important during the arrangement of marriage).
Initially she finds it hard to fit in and be accepted, her shyness a result of her predicament a well as the thing that helps maintain it but slowly things begin to change for her and in her first winter she meets Jaume.
'I was convinced that Conxa would be fat and beefy and, since I was so thin, when people asked my name I always thought they would burst out laughing and I'd feel bad. But Jaume told me that saying my name was like eating a sweet, that it was the name of something small and delicious that he liked very much. It was as if he'd been born to take away my fears, to bring light where I saw darkness and to flatten what felt like a mountain to me.'
Tia and Oncle are unhappy at first about a match, seeing Jaume as a bit of a drifter, not only a second son (and therefore not the heir) but for having not followed the family trade. Having mentioned that legacy is important, marriage is even more like a contract negotiation with families looking for advantage when proposing a match. At first it seems as if there is little to recommend Conxa and Jaume's union but slowly tempers cool, they come around to the idea after seeing potential benefits and it isn't long before they're not only married but celebrating the birth of their first child, a daughter, Elvira. The simple prose of the book tells of the preoccupations of village and peasant life: hard work, festivals, births, marriages and deaths. I was impressed by the way Barbal was able to alter her writing slightly so that the voice of Conxa, despite narrating from her old age, fitted perfectly with the immaturity of her youth, hope of her young adulthood and then on to the anguish of the period that we know is approaching. It comes disguised at first in the 'strange happiness' announced by left-wing firebrand Jaume.
'I didn't see this as any great happiness to speak of, but Jaume's joy flowed from his lips and hands and it was contagious. He grabbed me and took me out onto the street where people had gathered to talk...I was blinded by so much light and overwhelmed by the sound on everyone's lips - Republic.'
The departure of King Alfonso XIII and the arrival of the Republic is accompanied by a recurring dream for Conxa, of dancing with a partner whom she is sure is Jaume but whose 'features were erased'. She struggles with the meaning of this dream until one day a lorry pulls up and carts both her and her (now two) daughters away. In Monsent prison, scared and ignorant, incapable of talking to her captors Conxa's fragile stoicism provides the novella with its title.
'I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I'll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I'll be here, still, for days and days.'
She and her girls do stay there for days and days, finally released after five and half weeks into a world forever altered by civil war. Again there is a subtle shift in narrative voice as Conxa moves into middle and old age and we realise that we are witnessing the passing of a way of life, the younger generation unwilling to put up with the hard work that has characterised Conxa's own life. This book may not have had the same impact on me as Beside The Sea; the passivity of its narrator, as suggested by that image of the titular stone, means that for all our engagement with her Conxa remains a quiet and stoic presence. It is hard to get beyond the feeling that we are observing rather than participating in her story; the complicity of Beside The Sea is absent and that makes a big difference to the reading experience. That said, this is a novella that allows the reader to accompany an unobtrusive narrator through a lifetime punctuated by a well known historical event but never dominated by it, never to my mind has such a tumultuous period been portrayed by such a gentle presence. What actually remains is the touching portrait of a woman shaped by the world she lived in, the book defined by the fact that she is the one in a position to paint it.
on 11 September 2010
History has a way of sweeping people up as it relentlessly marches along its way. Tolstoy, in a long essay found as the epilogue to War and Peace, goes to great lengths to explain that the force of history is the accumulation of a million different happenstances, and not the directed will of a single person or group of people. Napoleon, he argues, was as swept along as the rest, with the primary difference being that we remember his name because he led the French, as opposed to the tens of thousands of faceless (though not, of course, to their families!) men and women who died. Maria Barbal's Stone in a Landslide captures the essence of this argument well, showing us a single, very ordinary, woman, as she is buffeted by history, her life shifting and turning on the whims of others.
Conxa is a young girl when she is given by her parents to her aunt and uncle. Their reasoning is utilitarian, which is to say it makes economic sense, but leaves much to the matters of the heart. Conxa's family cannot afford another mouth, and particularly another girl, while her aunt and uncle can use the help. Thus, a family is shifted and already Conxa's life is less than she had expected. She admires her mother's ability to work, commenting that she knew 'only two things: how to work and how to save':
"By the time we got up, she would have been working for ages already or even have gone off to the meadows with my father and Josep. When we went upstairs to bed, she used the time without us to prepare the next day's meal or tidy the house. She was always the last to go to bed and sometimes she'd say a rosary. But for all her devotion, I'm sure she didn't even get to half a mystery. Her tiredness must have held her trapped, like a sparrow in a snare."
From the start, Conxa's capacity for empathy is evident, and it is something we will see strengthened as her life continues. Rather than blame her mother, she instead recognises the difficulty of her life, and makes of her new future as much as she can.
"I learnt to do everything, outside the house as well as in. Exactly as they had shown me, without any touches of my own which they might think showed a lack of respect."
This is in the Pyrenées of the early 1920s and 1930s, a rural, very poor time and place in Spanish history where, to the peasants, places like Madrid and Barcelona seem so fantastic that they surely must be fake, or a dream, or at the very least, only slightly bigger than the place they live now. For Conxa, these faraway places and the names known to history are fairy-tales, at home with the ones her uncle shares at the end of a long day. At any rate, we soon learn the height of Conxa's expectations from life, and they are very small - a home, a husband, children, a sense of place, familiarity and family.
To that end she meets Jaume, a handsome young tradesman. He is the first person who is nice to her because of who she is, and less because of her ability and willingness to work.
"...Jaume told me that saying my name was like eating a sweet, that it was the name of something small and delicious that he liked very much. It was if he'd been born to take away my fears, to bring light where I saw darkness and to flatten what felt like a mountain to me."
There is, about forty pages in, a rather telling slip in the narration that alters things sufficiently that, it of course, is not a slip on Barbal's part but a tell, a showing of the hand to further increase the connection with Conxa. At this time, she is upset because Jaume's proposal was not accepted by her guardians, who believe that Martí Sebastià, who is richer, is a better proposition. She doesn't like him, and there's a lone sentence which read as follows:
"We've already talked about the son."
The use of we where there has always been an I or a they or a him, indicates to the reader that Conxa considers this extended statement about her life as a conversation between two people, and as a confession. She is examining her life in front of us, and explaining herself and the other people she has known. It is more intimate than simply a first-person narrated text, because the reader is implicitly drawn into the situation. We've already talked implicates us within the text, suggesting that there is a give and take between the reader and Conxa.
From the point the 'we' is used, our early feeling of connection with Conxa have deepened into an intimacy of feeling. We know this girl - now almost a woman - and though she isn't educated, she has a capacity for deep thinking and a predilection for introspection. Jaume's political concerns - for, remember, we are in the middle of those turbulent years between the World Wars, and in Spain, which means the encroaching malignancy of the Civil War - go way, way above her head, but she's happy with that because it is his interest, and doesn't overtly affect the doings of her family.
"He had joined the Republican Left, which was the party of the Generalitat government. He had explained all this to me. It was a government in Barcelona which made deals with the one in Madrid. The president was from Lleida and was Lluís Companys. He was a man who loved the workers and above all those who worked with the land. Like us, he said. When I listened to him, it was easy to understand, but what he had joined was strange to me...and I must admit it worried me a little."
What we have, then, is the measure of a woman. She is not an everywoman, or at least not in the sense that she has been crafted to represent the mythical Woman. But she is wholly realised and roundly created. She is not an excessive personality, but one suspects that walking a day in her shoes is a possibility, and that indeed many women have done so. She is neither glamorous nor exotic, instead she is homely, caring, nurturing and family-oriented. But why be so reductive? Let's ignore what she isn't for a moment. What Conxa is, is a mother and a woman, confused about the world but willing to work at it, devoted to her family, in love with her husband, and selfless with her children. She has flaws, but they diminish in comparison to her good qualities. Conxa has the earthy, organic good wisdom of wholesome peasant stock, reflective and empathetic, but quiet, and she knows to keep one's thoughts to one's self.
And now, halfway through the novel, Barbal has created her character. We know Conxa. Her ignorance might infuriate us, but that is only because we know her future - she doesn't, yet. Barbal has put all the pieces in place, and now it is time to knock them over.
The Spanish Civil War begins.
"Little by little news comes. Some people talk about fighting and deaths in the south of Spain...others talk about atrocities in Barcelona. They say that the priests have gone into hiding. Ours hasn't been seen for two days. Jaume is exultant. He keeps saying that what the people have decided freely cannot easily be set aside, not even with guns. What does he mean, the people?"
There is talk of killing, but it is far away. There are whispers of uprisings and rebellions, but the news is hazy and indistinct. Names are mentioned, but Conxa doesn't know who they are. And then, one day, the civil war comes to her region, and Jaume, along with many other men, is killed.
"When I realised that we were alone, like a flock without a shepherd, perhaps with the wolf circling, a great sense of abandonment came over me. It broke my heart that I didn't feel like I had the strength to be a mother. I was stunned behind a wall of sadness and since I couldn't scream or lost control, I wanted to stay still, unmoving, unthinking."
Conxa's sense of identity was formed very young, and though she doesn't every say it, we soon learn that what she has always wanted is a husband, a family, and a home, all wrapped up in what we'd call, I suppose, a life. That for her is all, and is in fact more than enough. Her first blow comes early, when she is given away by her parents to her uncle and aunt, and though nothing bad happens to her there, the foundation of what she has always expected from life receives its first crack. Twenty years later, with a dead husband, no real house of her own, and her country breaking apart during the Civil war, and these cracks have expanded until there's no foundation left. Here, Conxa comes into her own, because now she has to examine life to determine what else could be worthing having and experiencing.
There is a very sudden shift in her character during the war, and particularly when she returns home. Previously, Conxa accepted life as it came, because she had her children, her work, her God, and most of all, her husband. Afterwards, with some gone and others altered, she has - what? Her intellect. Left alone for so long, Conxa uses her deep sense of self and her ability to internalise and examine everything that occurs. Older now, not needed by anyone, or at least not as much, she has nothing to do but pause and reflect, to capture in her mind the person who mattered, Jaume, and the time that mattered, with Jaume. She
"couldn't believe that these two women with little children and the man marrying that day were my own children. How time had flown! I had to be a middle-aged or even an old woman. I'd never thought about it until that moment. The years after the war were a fixed point, immobile, all the same. I had stopped moving the morning the soldiers had knocked on the door."
Conxa's life is very much a Before and After. By the time her life is close to over, she has become useless to others, a relic, a walking piece of history to people who don't care about history. For them it's the past, distant and unknowable. For Conxa it's the present, or she wishes it was. She spends her time remembering, and talks ravenously with anyone who has a connection to those halcyon days before the war, drinking information from them the way a man dying of thirst drinks from a well.
Maria Barbal's novella is short, but it contains magnitudes. She has refracted through Conxa the time of her time, which is to say that Conxa acts as a sort of prism through which the light of her history bends. As the title suggests, Conxa really is a stone caught up in a landslide, and small stones have very little influence on the path of a collapsing mountain. But neither do the bigger stones, if we remember Tolstoy's epilogue in War and Peace. For some of us, we can ride atop a horse and make commanding speeches. For others, we can die in prisons, killed by our own countrymen. For still others there is famine, captivity, death, torture, disease, flooding, the affliction of the many against the many - the general turmoil and turbulence of life. Most of us can only live it, and take from life what little it will give us. Conxa is such a person, an ordinary person, she is believable in the way another person's mother is believable - a real human being. She is not of history but is caught up in it; she is uneducated but is forced to live through times that will later be studied by intelligent men and women at comfortable universities. Conxa is genuine, and wonders about her life with simple language and a direct sense of 'what does it mean?' Her wonderings make up this rather lovely book.
on 22 November 2010
Translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell
"I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I'll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I'll be here still, for days and days..."
Maria Barbal's novella, Stone in a Landslide, is unique because it covers so much history in just a few pages. The fictional memoir begins in the Catalan region of Spain, when a young woman, just thirteen, is forced to leave her home because there are too many mouths to feed. The poverty in this time left many with few choices, and so her family sends her to live with a barren aunt and her husband. This quiet little girl, Conxa, leaves quietly, and without much fuss. A personality trait that becomes a description of her life, her quiet acceptance of what befalls her is what makes her story so intriguing.
In first-person, she recounts her adjustment to a new home, where she has to learn to navigate around her controlling aunt and the new chores put upon her. She works extremely hard both in their home as well as in the maintenance of their fields and animals. But this is no Cinderella story, her relatives are not cruel. They come to love her as a daughter, and the skills she learns help her as she becomes a woman with a family of her own. The novel covers the milestones of marriage and motherhood and loss, all against the backdrop of the famine and the violence of the Spanish Civil War.
Despite all she could say, she is actually quiet brief. It's clear that being forced to leave her home as a child took something from her, possibly her sense of security or belonging. Because throughout the story, though she never directly states it, it's clear that she felt like a burden, and that she should never speak up or contradict others. She raises her own children with loving attention but a sense of distance, always looking at them through the eyes of possibly losing them. "Perhaps deep down I was afraid of losing what I'd learnt to own." Her insecurity combined with fear leave her mute in the face of problems, such as the menacing priest that threatens her family's safety. It's only when her worst fears are realized that she becomes more aware and invested in her own life.
In the case of the Catalan villagers, their very lives were impacted by decisions and actions far away in Barcelona-so far that even their oppressors didn't quite know who they were. It would be easy to say these were simple people, but that implies that they were ignorant. These people were intelligent and wise, but their commitment to the land for basic sustenance gave them little time to dwell on the political happenings far from them. When the rebellion came close to home, she realizes that the rural villagers throughout most of Spain were like her, simple people as insignificant as stones found on the Catalonian mountainsides.
"There were those who wanted us not only to suffer but to feel guilty as well. Why do hundreds of stones always fall at once?"
This is a quiet book, filled with thoughts to contemplate. The slow pace of the village life and the tremendous hard work is unimaginable. After I finished the book, I found myself returning to it for the simple prose and the way she can say so much in so few words.