Graves in trees, escaped spirits, and tortured thieves

Mercè Rodoreda is not alive. She died of cancer in 1983 and was buried in the cemetery of Romanyà. However, had she been among the characters of her final novel, Death in Spring (La Mort i la Primavera), she would have been placed in the middle of the villa plaza, on her deathbed, where she would have had cement poured into her mouth till her stomach was full. She then would have been interred, not into a hole in the ground, but sealed into the carved-out trunk of a still-living tree. This was not her fate. But then without this ritual, we can believe — as her fictional villagers would have — that her soul escaped.

Death in Spring can be read as a novel exploring escape — not how to escape, but who and what to escape from. Narrated from the point of view of a 14-year-old boy who begins the novel witnessing his father’s attempted suicide, we are met with a confusing array of violent events and descriptions of the beauty and uniqueness of the village. While specific events are glossed past in just sentences, we are given recurring descriptions of the neighing of the horses, the imminent danger and control of the river that runs past and underneath the village, and most frequently the odors that permeate the houses, the woods, and the trees in which the dead are encased.

Each of these things — the horses, the smells, the river — is meant to be understood symbolically, each holding a specific role in the world that exists for these villagers. As an example, the village prisoner, once a thief, serves for all the crimes of the villagers. Constant torture and spectacle lead to his dehumanization — the end goal of his punishment. On the day he is declared a creature no longer human, he is freed from his cage and released to live in the woods. He doesn’t disappear into the darkness or the past; rather, he remains, befriending our boy-narrator and watching over the village people, judging them for their own crimes.

Rodoreda is not telling a story of a boy who, after the death of his father, takes his step-mother as his wife and with her creates a daughter who falls in love with the oppressive blacksmith’s malnourished son, as uniquely imagined as that is; she is capturing a state of mind. Her own life and experiences through the Spanish Civil War have informed all of her writing, and Death in Spring is no exception. But this is not a literal account of the war; it is an emotional and psychological understanding of war and life under totalitarianism, reflecting back after 40 years.

We are not given the answers to fixing an unhappy marriage, the death of a parent, or distance from a child, nor are we handed solutions for escaping tradition or even escaping the pains of adolescence. We are not given a story where the best of the villagers unite to overthrow a vicious dictator. This novel is just one boy’s account of living life; it is an example that tells us a story: a beautiful and evocative and viscerally bloody story about life and death.