If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still

Stone in a Landslide

Stone in a Landslide
by Maria Barbal
translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell

This book takes a whole life and tells it in less than 120 pages, which is both its strength and its weakness. There is some beautiful writing, but there’s also a lot of speeding past things that another writer might have taken a whole novel to explore. It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

The life told is that of Conxa, a poor Catalan woman whose story begins when she is a child in the early 20th century. There are three major things that happen in her life that each could have been central to a chunky novel but here are dealt with in 10 or 15 pages. First, she is from a large rural family that can’t easily support all the children, while her aunt and uncle are childless and need help to manage their house and land, so at 13 Conxa is sent on a day’s journey, the furthest she has ever travelled, to begin a new life at her aunt’s house. She has gone from countryside to small town, from familiar to unfamiliar and it takes years for her to settle in.

“My mother was a woman who knew only two things: how to work and how to save…She was always the last to go to bed and sometimes she’d say a rosary. But for all her devotion, I’m sure she didn’t even get to half a mystery. Her tiredness must have held her trapped, like a sparrow in a snare.”

Perhaps the biggest thing, from Conxa’s perspective, is her falling in love with Jaume. He’s a builder and carpenter who travels a lot for his work, and consequently is much more worldly and politically aware then Conxa, who shies away from such things. I found it difficult to sympathise with Conxa’s lack of interest in the wider world, even though the story is narrated by her voice, so we hear her reasons first hand. It keeps the story very narrow, telling just her life rather than the history of the world or Spain or even just Catalonia at that time, which I can see has its advantages, but it’s not the perspective I would prefer to read.

The final major event for Conxa is the Spanish Civil War. While the First World War appears to have happened without even a hint of it in Conxa’s narrative, the Spanish Civil War is unavoidable. Jaume’s interest in politics makes his absences from home suspicious and it’s little surprise when terror comes to their doorstep. But still Conxa never offers explanation or her own opinion, only fear.

“I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days.”

Weaving between and around these three is the everyday life of sustenance farming and village gossip. And none of these are things that lack interest, or told badly, only too briefly to really make me feel involved. I usually like spare prose but I think this was too much of an extreme and I just wanted there to be more to it.

Pedra de Tartera published 1985 by Columna Edicions.
This translation published 2010 by Peirene Press.

Source: Bought direct from the publisher.

Memories that approached, invading my body

The Seamstress
by María Dueñas
translated by Daniel Hahn

This novel (which is titled The Time In Between in some countries) is one of those where a lot happens later in the book and I am torn about how much to reveal. I don’t think the story hinges on these plot points, but I have a general policy to not give away plot details. So I’ll do my best but

I think the key to my impression of this book was hidden away in the author’s note at the end. I can see why it was saved until after all of the story has been revealed, but it made me see everything in a different light and half makes me want to re-read the book with the new knowledge that I have. What Dueñas has done is to take a historical story that she wanted to tell, with huge real events and important real people, but shown through the prism of a fictional minor character.

That character is Sira, born in Madrid to a single mother who works hard as a seamstress. Sira is all set to follow in her mother’s footsteps, or perhaps learn to type and become a lowly civil servant, when a man storms into her life and changes everything.

The story is set in the 1930s and 1940s, through the Spanish Civil War and the beginnings of World War II. In Spain, Morocco and Spain again, Sira’s fortunes rise and rise, but as she mixes with richer folk she learns about the politics of her country and is driven to do what she can to help it at this worst of times. She enjoys more than a little luck, with many a kind stranger giving her a helping hand along her way, but she is a likeable enough character. In fact, she is a very strong woman, single for most of the book and independently making her way.

Sira narrates the story in no-nonsense fashion, with few embellishments and few asides. What she describes is believably what would catch the eye of a dressmaker born to a poorer life than the one she later enjoys. She describes the poise and confidence of the rich, the cut and quality of clothes, the size and elegance of rooms or furnishings. Despite essentially following one career on a successful trajectory, Sira thinks of each new stage in her life as a reinvention, requiring changes to her personality as well as her back story. She makes a point of teaching herself how to act above her station – how to stand, how to speak, how to socialise.

At 600+ pages it’s quite a long book, and there were times in the middle when my attention strayed. It felt to me that the whole point of the book was the final section, in Madrid when Franco’s government is teetering towards full collaboration with the Nazis, and that all of the rest had been build-up. It certainly changes pace there, becoming a thriller with a poised, confident female heroine. But perhaps it wouldn’t have worked so well without the full knowledge of how Sira became that woman.

Another slight negative for me, and of course I don’t know if this is Dueñas or the translation, was that there were many times when what could have been a subtle point was overstated, sometimes clumsily even. But I should also say that in general I thought the translation was excellent, dealing very effectively with characters speaking multiple languages to one another.

This book has stayed with me in the days since finishing it and has definitely made me curious to learn more about the Spanish Civil War. And it’s made me want to go to Morocco, but I kinda already wanted to do that!

This book was sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published May 2012 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books.