“War without a Name:” A Review of Mercè Rodoreda’s War, So Much War (Translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent)

War, So Much War Open Letter Books Lattimore Hall 411, Box 270082 Rochester, NY 14627 2015, 220 pp., $13.95, 9781940953229

Readers seeking a precise historical context for the war of Mercè Rodoreda’s novel War, So Much War (recently released in a hypnotic English translation by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent) will be disappointed. No sides are staked out, no battles chronicled, and no military hierarchy manipulates the puppet strings of the characters’ fates. In fact, the narrative landscape is not even so much geographic as psychological. This is the source of the book’s allure: Within the nebulous contours of a war which could be unfolding anywhere, at any time, individual stories stand out like pieces of a mosaic, setting in relief an exploration of the conflict between self and society, and the psyche’s transcendent resilience amid the horrors of civilization.

Mercè Rodoreda, the most highly lauded and emblematic writer of modern Catalan literature, was born in 1908, in Barcelona, the only child of a homemaker and a salesclerk in a gunsmith shop. Married at the age of twenty to her uncle, a union which produced one son, she began writing as a refuge from this difficult relationship. Her work as a journalist in the 1930s focused on political and intellectual questions of import at the time, which put her in the orbit of Catalonia’s literati. Yet Rodoreda was largely self-taught, having attended school for a total of only three years. As a child she transcribed conversations overheard among workers in her family’s garden, and this, perhaps, is where she developed an ear for the first-person, confessional voice which would figure so prominently in her novels and stories.

However, it was Rodoreda’s exile in France and Switzerland following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War that would leave the greatest imprint on her work. She once confessed that “[w]riting in Catalan in a foreign country is like wanting flowers to bloom at the North Pole.” The psychological fracturing of exile demanded new forms to give voice to the unspeakable; nevertheless, for Rodoreda, this alienation was both creatively and personally liberating. She began an affair with Armand Obiols, the only person with whom she shared her work during this period, and radically rewrote her first novel Aloma, breaking free from the self-censorship of her traditional upbringing, which had previously confined her to literary realism.

... lured into the uncanny, wandering the text as aimlessly as its narrator, the novel’s unity of imagery and themes serves as a kind of lodestar.

In exile, she experimented with poetry and short stories, cultivating an avant-garde lyricism that reached its full expression upon her return to Catalonia in the 1970s after the death of Obiols, where she remained until her death from liver cancer in Girona in 1983. Here the process of reclaiming memory, of coming to terms with yet another uprooting, took shape as the symbolist style for which she is acclaimed. Her characters are misfits and wanderers with whom she must have felt an affinity, yet in grappling with an interior fragmentation, her work speaks to readers of every era and background.

Rodoreda’s writing reawakened worldwide interest in a literature that had, since its birth in the tradition of the medieval troubadours, become increasingly marginalized, suffering a near-fatal blow under Franco’s program of linguistic repression and political persecution. Her most famous novel, In the Time of the Doves, was particularly popular as a tool for sustaining Catalan literature during the dictatorship by promoting literacy among Catalans themselves. Today, her work, in its experimental forms and with its perennial, existential themes, has never seemed so fresh. Translated into more than thirty languages, her corpus continues to furnish new and eagerly awaited translations, such as this gem just released by Open Letter Books.

Published three years before Rodoreda’s death, War, So Much War merits a place beside In the Time of the Doves, for it shows a certain penultimate flowering of her enigmatic stream-of-conscious technique while taking up many of the psychological themes for which she is known: war, identity, memory, fragmentation and personal relationships. The novel is literary quicksilver: certain conventional descriptors—picaresque, surreal, fable—are at once apt and decidedly inadequate; the novel simply cannot be pinned down with one specific label.

The plot is deceptively simple: the narrator, a young man by the name of Adrià Guinart, runs away from home to fight in the war, without seeming to fully grasp his own motivations for doing so, then immediately abandons his soldierly responsibilities to spend the majority of the novel wandering the countryside. But in many respects this is not Adrià’s story, although he may fit the prototype of a picaresque hero—complete with a distinguishing birthmark and the fantastic, even portentous, story of his birth to open the novel. Rather, he is a voyeur, an unwitting ear for the confessions of a motley cast of largely nameless characters, each of whom seems as eager to divulge his or her own personal story as a patient on a psychoanalyst’s couch. Adrià, for his part, remains distant from these lines of narrative, an uncritical chronicler tossed by the vagaries of war from one self-contained history to another.

So, with each reprise of the theme, the melody becomes more muddled rather than less, as if chord after chord were overlapping without fading.

It is only at the novel’s end (and during rare episodes of transit between encounters) that Adrià turns his gaze inward, reflecting on his own journey of self-discovery—indeed, even when finally asked to tell his story, Adrià fumbles for an answer.

Such polyphonic complexity requires a sure authorial hand, and Rodoreda’s modernist style deftly juggles what would otherwise be a dizzying array of narratives. With fluid, meditative prose and an indeterminate setting, she disorients readers just enough to let them feel the weight of Adrià’s own psychological unmooring. And yet, lured into the uncanny, wandering the text as aimlessly as its narrator, the novel’s unity of imagery and themes serves as a kind of lodestar.

One particularly compelling technique is the absence of quotations, which causes Adrià’s narrative to bleed into his interlocutor’s. Each story begins in free indirect speech, but within the same line, the antecedents of pronouns almost imperceptibly shift, so the other is now telling his own touching, tragic, or even mordantly humorous story:

As the cat dozed on my lap, he started telling me about his life, though I didn’t much care to hear about it: He had two daughters whom he had not seen in years, he liked them better from afar because it allowed him to see them as he would have wished them to be. He had married young, and his bride was beautiful. I never fell out of love. The daughters we had are the spitting image of their mother.

Subjectivity becomes fluid, intertwining self and other so intricately that the reader can endlessly mine the prose itself for insight into the most enduring existential and ontological questions without settling on any answers. Taken as a whole, the narrative resembles an operatic counterpoint, where characters interact while still remaining walled inside the territory of their own plotlines, their own melodies. The result is a many-layered repetition of motifs and refrains which stabs at the heart of human experience, that all-consuming isolation which binds us irrevocably to one another.

Perhaps the landscape is what unifies these disparate narratives. Readers of Rodoreda’s other works will recognize in War, So Much War the author’s trademark emphasis on poetic descriptions of nature, here simultaneously bucolic and violent, at times verging on the cinematic, in which sights and sounds bring the otherwise surreal, non-linear narrative into focus. Consequently, it is these earthy passages where Relaño’s and Tennent’s translation is most incandescent, achieving a haunting lyricism and, in those moments of Adrià’s sudden self-insight, an even playful, sing-song cadence:

I love a girl who wants nothing, she wants nothing, she wants only to belong to herself, herself alone. She loves rivers that carry stars, she hangs them up and takes them down, she speaks to them, knows what they are made of. She loves rocks and fire. She is not afraid of anything. Not even of the dead she sends down the river by shoving them with her pitchfork.

The land represents a primordial oasis, the destination of Adrià’s flight from civilization, yet it is a mirage. The omnipresence of war thwarts any sort of ascetic escape, and Adrià’s wanderings become circular, dreamlike, confining him to eternally entering and exiting the same stage where characters (or names of characters—for example, the names Isabel, Eulàlia, Matilda and Manel, all used to describe multiple personages) recur. Despite his expansive, and sometimes even cosmic descriptions of the natural world, the vaguely outlined landscape is enclosed, claustrophobic, suggesting a Freudian conception of the unconscious: It is both fertile ground for symbolic understanding beyond our immediate experience and a self-contained world which condemns us to repeating our past, thereby hemming us into a constant confrontation with ourselves.

While the novel’s pastoral imagery, by juxtaposing the scenic with the grotesque (for instance in one of the final scenes, a strangely poetic yet jarring description of a mother enlisting Adrià’s aid in the burial of her infant child), tugs the reader down to earth with each and every minute detail, it is the metaphysical motifs which resonate most. Religious imagery abounds, whether figurative—“airplanes dropping rosary upon rosary of bombs”—or literal (for example, two distinct characters whose wounds make allusion to the stigmata). Shadows both form part of a given character’s story and loom over the entirety of the narrative, standing in for the ubiquity of evil and even, in a grippingly suspenseful scene, stalking Adrià himself as the personification of his fear.

She once confessed that “[w]riting in Catalan in a foreign country is like wanting flowers to bloom at the North Pole.”

One of the most evocative recurrent images, a mirror, also hints at a more abstract, elusive reading, jumping to the fore in the book’s longest and arguably most fantastic digression. Adrià, happening upon a wealthy rural family, the Ardèvols, interrupts his wanderings to remain on their farm for a time, becoming the beneficiary of Senyor Ardèvol’s memories as the elder man approaches death. But it is not until after Senyor Ardèvol’s passing that Adrià, reading the journal willed to him for destruction, discovers the secret pervading his patron’s existence. Employing free indirect narrative interpolated into the rest of the novel as if it had happened only yesterday, Adrià describes his benefactor’s morbid fascination with his own reflection in the hall mirror, an image which comes alive with the appearance of a pair of eyes drawing him into himself, forcing him to contemplate his own mortality, the self as other. Increasingly obsessed with those eyes, with the appearance of other surreal images, such as a palm wounded with the stigmata, Senyor Ardèvol develops the nightly habit of sitting before the mirror. He describes feeling simultaneously chained to that image and freed by it. Adrià, upon completing his reading, shatters the hall mirror. Despite Adrià’s repeated insistence that “My life is my own,” he is, like his patron, haunted by his own reflection. He yearns for solitude, yet fears the ensuing confrontation with the self. So, with each reprise of the theme, the melody becomes more muddled rather than less, as if chord after chord were overlapping without fading.

Thus the last chapter, which rings with the finality of a fable’s moral, is really just a beginning, suggesting that the search for self is ultimately circular, an ebb and flow between flight and discovery, isolation and freedom, hope and despair, which necessarily crosses paths with the whole of humanity before returning to the personal.