The novel begins its tale in a poor mountain village in Spain, where the village elders prepare to perform a death rite on the disfigured, yet still breathing body of a middle aged man. The teenage son of the man attends the rite, surrounded by unsympathetic villagers who are the teen’s neighbors and friends. He watches, without reaction, as the elders pour concrete into his struggling father’s mouth to guard against the man’s soul escaping his body after his death. The father gags, fights to draw in air, and gradually suffocates while the others look on. This death rite is just one of many strange rituals and beliefs the reader encounters in Death in Spring, by Merce’ Rodoreda (translated by Martha Tennent).
Rodoreda’s nameless, now orphaned teen acquaints us with the novel’s central theme of fear and desire as he takes on the role of caregiver to his young step-mother and the child they will ultimately have together. Eventually the reader comes to realize the teen’s life journey is the village’s life journey in mono. What the story intimates throughout the novel’s 150 pages is a foregone conclusion at the fear and desire ridden ending.
Nature holds no beauty in this story, only fear of what it can do. The supernatural the village experiences brings death and unsatisfactory closure to life with no real understanding of why. And the desire of human nature, which silently runs amok in the village, brings more fear and death to a people who are already drowning in it.
Rodoreda, who is known for her descriptive narrative, is long winded at times, yet beautiful and thought provoking throughout. Her Spanish heritage feeds her sense of emotional description, which, in the case of this novel, sets a threatening and disturbing tone for the reader’s journey. “The dark forest in front of me quivered” is beautifully simple. Yet, it relays the movement of the forest as well as the emotional dread the protagonist feels while he sits on the muddy bank of the river, soaked to the bone, scrutinizing the ominous forest before him in almost full dark.
The same art of description becomes tiring to wade through in a few of the novel’s longer passages. Suffice it to say that ‘swaying reeds’ holds only so many interesting and original interpretations before the reader forgets what was actually swaying and loses the thread of the depiction.
Death in Spring is superb and worth the read if only for the beauty of Rodoreda’s prose and the insight she gives into fear as an entity and the lack of desire as a soul killing disease.
Some of life’s most spectacular, life giving and unimaginable experiences await us when we’re willing to allow ourselves to look beyond our own culture to the culture of someone else. Please, take a peek at Death in Spring. I dare you.