When I first heard of Mercè Rodoreda, I was on a tour of an aerial bunker far beneath the streets of Barcelona, packed in tight with twenty strangers, sitting quietly in the dark and listening to the sounds of labored breathing. The bunker was located in the middle of Gracià, the neighborhood in which Rodoreda’s work is set, and I had signed up for the tour to better understand a crucial piece of Catalan history, one that Rodoreda takes as the starting point for her work — the realities of the Spanish Civil War, and its devastating, far-reaching fallout in Barcelona.
It was preternaturally quiet in the shelter, though the tour guide asked us to imagine the sounds of bombs falling. We did as we were told, closing our eyes and trying to conjure the reality of 1930s Barcelona under the siege of fascist powers. He proceeded to tell us about the role that Catalunya (an autonomous region of Spain) had played in the war, impressing on us that Barcelona was the last city to cede its power under Franco’s military campaign.
Emerging from the bomb shelter was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Above ground, kids played on jungle gyms; teenagers kicked a soccer ball around; old men sat sipping coffee and reading the newspaper while their wives knit on a nearby bench and gossiped. In the middle of the square, a statue of Rodoreda presided grandly over the harmony.
Rodoreda is Catalunya’s literary pride and joy — an elusive figure who was confined to domesticity and then exiled from Spain in the aftermath of the war. For as long as she lived, excluding her years in exile when she felt creatively blocked and isolated from her native Catalan, Rodoreda wrote poignantly about the things she most likely knew best — domestic disappointments, the exhaustion of poverty, the wandering hopelessness that accompanies a lack of agency, all of which takes place, in her writing, against the backdrop of a post-war fugue. She speaks of the dissonance between civilian and military life by focusing exclusively on the quotidian, though the realities of war and its effects seep into the cracks between her (seemingly straightforward) sentences and descriptions.
In Camellia Street, Rodoreda gives us Cecilia C., an orphaned girl who moves through the world in an arbitrary way, letting herself be propped up as an accessory and sexual trophy in the houses of various men. She believes her beauty to be her only asset in a world that soundly rejects her at the moment of her birth, and as such, she abandons the family that adopts her as a foundling, running off with the first of many men who will support her as she can’t or won’t support herself.
Cecilia’s life is a constantly unfolding catastrophe, and her only source of solace is her body, which is ravaged by the realities of poverty, time, and a life of sex work. The result is a particular breed of narcissism that is borne from the rootlessness of her existence — the only thing Cecilia has in life is herself. As she grows older and bounces around from place to place, her beauty is the only asset she can rely on, and Rodoreda constantly reminds us that it’s fleeting.
Camellia Street is very much indicative of Rodoreda’s lyrical style of prose — even as the plot wanders, following Cecilia as she lives a life devoid of purpose, the captivating way that Rodoreda renders the scenery of Barcelona and the inner workings of Cecilia’s mind make the novel a pleasure to read. David Rosenthal is clearly a masterful translator of the original Catalan — you can see Rodoreda’s pen at work behind his translation; the lyrical way she constructs sentences is evident on every page.
It is clear why Rodoreda is widely revered by writers all over the world, and in Camellia Street, her powers are on full display. Cecilia C. is a perfect representation of the characters Rodoreda writes — women caught in the riptide of war, using what they have to get by. In her stream-of-consciousness way, Cecilia C. refuses to examine her life with any depth, preferring to protect herself with a superficial narcissism. However, as if by accident, she offers us keen insight into the men she finds herself dependent on and controlled by, “…and how, in order not to see them, she’d learned to live without looking.”
Photo courtesy of Open Letter.