A couple of days before Christmas I woke in the early hours struggling to breathe and feeling sweat trickling down my back and covering my brow. I’d had a bad dream. It’s not unusual for me to sleep badly, I often wake up worrying about stuff but this was unusual for me; I don’t normally dream at all, let alone have nightmares. Something had spooked me though; I sat up startled and confused unable to piece together what had happened in my night terror to distress me so much – faceless people I didn’t recognise lurking in doorways, a beaker full of spit, another containing teeth, a third holding paintbrushes. Metal coat-hangers clattering in the background (this is something I had nightmares about a lot as a child), me emerging from a winnebago confused and feeling and unseen menace. And that’s it. That’s as much as I remember. When I tried to understand what it was all about the following day, an explanation felt just out of reach, as though an important puzzle piece was missing. I couldn’t quite work it out.
This is exactly how I felt reading Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. The Catalan writer’s posthumously published novel is an oppressive read and horrific in places. This story is narrated by an unnamed young man describing life in a restless and rules-driven society governed by weirdness and occult-like regimens. Where the status quo is a given. Noone questions the strange reoccurring activities the villagers carry out every year. The residents are compliant with the horrific traditions they adhere to. Treating each other with contempt and casting out our committing violence against anyone stepping out of line. I never quite got to grips with what was going on or what it all symbolised. Like my night terror, I had a notion that the answer would be on the next page, or perhaps the one after that – and when it didn’t emerge, I wondered whether my capacity to understand was just not quite developed enough; I’m not bright enough to comprehend the meaning. Though I did manage to work out that the oppression of village life symbolised life for many Spaniards under Franco’s dictatorship.
I may not be clever enough to understand what the heck this book is about or what was going on most of the time but I am clever enough to realise the quality of Rodoreda’s writing. Her description of nature, mountains, butterflies, rivers and woodland are utterly sublime, even though most of these natural features are the cause of some of the horrors meted out to the villagers. Her prose is dreamlike and ethereal, shifting and repeating, sometimes surprising you by jerking from one moment to another. Many scenes are described as viewed from a distance; from the back of a crowd, from behind a shrub, from up a tree, rarely straight on, as though described by an onlooker rather than a participant. It’s this style that reminded me of my nightmare where I felt removed from and confused by the scene I dreamt.
The only other thing I fathomed was the source of the oppression:
Let suffering be removed, but not desire, because desire keeps you alive. That’s why they are afraid. They are consumed by the fear of desire. They want to suffer so they won’t think about desire. You’re maimed when you’re little, and fear is hammered into the back of your head. Because desire keeps you alive, they kill it off while you’re growing up, the desire for all things, in that way when you’re grown…
Life without desire of any kind, is a life lived in fear and not worth living at all.