Friday, 2 September 2016

Book Review: In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

The first half of the twentieth century saw many changes, notably with regard to society. By the end of the Great War of 1914-18 courageous women – disapprovingly called “suffragettes” – had claimed already for some decades not yet equality with men but at least more rights. The great majority of women, however, kept following quite naturally the traditional female role model that tied them to a man, be it a husband, father, brother or other male relative, and confined them to what we call the three K’s in German, namely “children” (Kinder), “kitchen” (Küche) and “church” (Kirche). Young Natalia, the protagonist of the much acclaimed Catalan novel In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda, is one of them. She lives in Barcelona of the 1930s and becomes the docile wife of the Joe who does whatever he likes without considering Natalia or their children, even when it’s the question of risking his life in the Spanish Civil war.

Mercè Rodoreda i Gurguí was born in Barcelona, Spain, in October 1908. At the age of twenty she married her much older uncle, but the marriage was unhappy and writing became her escape. She started with short stories for magazines and brought out her first award-winning novel, Aloma, in 1938. The Spanish Civil War forced her to go into exile first in France and later in Switzerland where she worked as a seamstress and resumed her career as a writer only in 1957 publishing Vint-i-dos contes (1958; Twenty-one Short Stories). It was followed by her chef-d’oeuvre In Diamond Square (La plaça del diamant: 1962; previously translated as The Time of the Doves and The Pigeon Girl) and award-winning Camellia Street (El carrer de les camèlies: 1966), before she could finally return to Spain. The most notable among her later works are the novels Jardí vora el mar (1967; Garden by the Sea), A Broken Mirror (Mirall Trencat: 1974), and War, So Much War (Quanta, quanta guerra...: 1980) along with the short story collections My Christina and Other Stories (La meva Cristina i altres contes: 1968), Semblava de seda i altres contes (1978; It Looked Like Silk and Other Stories), and Viatges i flors (1980; Travels and Flowers). Mercè Rodoreda died in Girona, Spain, in April 1983. Her unfinished novels Death in Spring (La mort i la primavera: 1986) and Isabel i Maria (1991; Isabel and Maria) were published posthumously.

Pretty Natalia is very young, when she meets Joe (“Quimet” in the original text) at a dance in a café In Diamond Square in Barcelona. He is handsome, boisterous and unlike her very sure of himself, in other words he is a typical young Catalan man of the 1930s. Already during the dance, he tells her that within a year she will be his wife and darling (“reina”, i.e. “queen” in the original text) although they have only met. He may be half joking, but it’s then that she has a closer look.
“... And his eyes looked deep into mine as if the whole world was in them and there was no escape. And the night sped on under the Great Bear in the sky, and the party sped on and the girl in blue with the posy whirled round and round...” 
Later, in the street, he calls her Pidgey (“Colometa” from “colom”, i.e. pigeon in the original text) for the first time and he just laughs when she protests emphasising that her name is Natalia. In his opinion, Pidgey is the only suitable name for her and because she is a woman it doesn’t matter to him what she thinks. The day they get married, she ceases to be Natalia even to herself. She now meekly follows all his wishes and whims as is any good wife’s duty. They move into a run-down apartment that they have been remodelling together with the help of his friends and he works in his small carpenter’s workshop to earn their living. Before long they have a boy, Anthony (“Antoni”), and less than two years later a girl, Rita. Meanwhile the political situation has been getting unstable and Joe’s business is slack. When Pidgey finds an injured pigeon and nurses it back to health, he comes up with the idea of raising pigeons in the disused garret. Of course, it’s dirty work for Pidgey that doesn’t pay, mainly because Joe instead of selling the birds gives most of them away as presents. To save the family from starvation Pidgey finally takes life into her own hands finding herself a job. Then Joe joins the republican forces and fights in the Civil War…

The first impression of In Diamond Square is that it’s just another coming-of-age novel because the opening presents young and yielding Natalia at a dance dressed all in white, thus as a paragon of innocence. Moreover, it is made clear from the beginning that she stands more or less alone in life because her mother died long ago and her father has a new, young wife. In reality, it’s the story of a woman who loses herself submitting completely to her extremely egotist husband and who resigns to her fate just like other women do and have done before her. Instead of overtly rebelling against the role that her husband and a strongly patriarchal society force on her, she begins to hate everything that stands for it, most of all the doves that sully her apartment. Only the looming threat of starvation because her husband’s dreams don’t feed the family drives her to take initiative. And by and by she liberates herself and eventually she not only finds herself but also contentment if not happiness in a second marriage that started as one of convenience. The use of first-person narrative, stream-of-consciousness and colloquial language that is exceedingly rich in powerful images and full of symbols proved more than appropriate for this impressive novel.

I read a Spanish translation of In Diamond Square and checked the amazon preview of the latest English translation for important differences. What should I say, Peter Bush as translator of the Virago Modern Classics' edition anglicised all names and I’m afraid that he didn’t prove particular skill turning “Quimet” into common “Joe” (although if read as short for “Joaquim” it’s not as far-fetched as it seems at first) and his friend “Cintet” into ordinary “Ernie”! Also in other respects the few pages that I was allowed to read in English didn’t convince me. For instance, I’d translate the first sentence of the passage that I quoted above (“And his eyes… escape.”) more literally, namely as follows:
“… And I all alone with those eyes in front of me that didn’t leave me, as if the whole world had changed into those eyes and there was no escape.”
It gives the scene a slightly different feel, doesn’t it? Of course, I’m not really the person to judge because I’m no translator, not even a native speaker of English, nor of Catalan or at least Spanish. I’m just an avid reader who knows a few things about languages.

Despite an almost happy ending, there can be no doubt that In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda is no light and cheerful novel to everybody’s taste. It definitely was the right read for me because I immensely enjoyed it, notably thanks to the beauty of its language and to the psychological depth of the narrator in all stages of her transformation. It’s true that from today’s point of view Natalia or Pidgey may seem shockingly, if not incredibly passive and pathetic. We must not forget, though, that women who came of age in the 1930s weren’t usually brought up to live a self-determined life, even less in Catholic Spain (after all there is a reason why we use the Spanish word “macho” in so many languages!). The novel is a sad, though sensitive as well as convincing time piece and social study about women’s doom in a thoroughly patriarchal system. My verdict: highly recommended!

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This review is a contribution to
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  1. I would like to read this. I checked and there is another English translation by David Rosenthal published in 1986 by Graywolf Press, a highly respected indie publisher of works translated into English. Maybe I should try that one.

    1. Yes, La Plaça del Diamant has been translated into English before - twice if I'm right. Since Mercè Rodoreda used many colloquialisms, the translation seems to be a bit tricky.

      I read that David H. Rosenthal was a renowned poet and translator from Catalan, so maybe his translation is indeed better than the more recent one of the Virago Modern Classics edition.

  2. I forgot to mention that the translation I mentioned is titled The Time of the Doves.

    1. An even older translation was titled The Pigeon Girl, but I reckon that it's no longer on the market unless second-hand.


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